Colorado student editors win Courage Award


H.S. journalists braved retaliation for truthful report on classmate's death





FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director 703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

Two student journalists who overcame their high school’s attempt to shutter the student newspaper after the students sought to publish a news story about a classmate’s death are the recipients of the 2011 Courage in Student Journalism Award.

The award recipients are Lori Shafer and Jaclyn Gutierrez, editors of The Overland Scout at Overland High School in Aurora, Colo. The awards, which will be presented at the National High School Journalism Convention, Nov. 17-20 in Minneapolis, are given each year to student journalists and school officials who have demonstrated exceptional fortitude in defending freedom of the press.

The Courage award is co-sponsored by the Student Press Law Center, the National Scholastic Press Association, and the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University, which underwrites a $500 cash prize plus travel expenses for the winners.

“There are, unfortunately, many examples of students doing excellent journalistic work and suffering retaliation for it. But Lori and Jaclyn showed especially remarkable fortitude in standing up against a campaign of public disinformation from the highest levels of their own school district. They never wavered in the knowledge that they were right, and they took ownership of their rights and asserted them with maturity, skill and success. They exemplify courage in student journalism,” said Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

The conflict occurred when Principal Leon Lundie objected to a news story about the death of an Overland High School sophomore, Leibert Phillips. A death certificate obtained by the student journalists attributed Phillips’ death to complications from a leg fracture he sustained in a wrestling meet – a fact that Lundie tried to dissuade the students from reporting.

After the students persisted in pursuing the story, Lundie told adviser Laura Sudik that she was being removed from advising duties and that the newspaper would be abolished effective in the 2011-12 school year.

The students got help from the Student Press Law Center, which – in tandem with the Colorado High School Press Association and the ACLU of Colorado – helped the students with legal research and publicity. When school officials were convinced that retaliation against public school students for publishing lawful editorial content is specifically prohibited by Colorado law and by the First Amendment, the punishment was reversed – the newspaper was restored, without mandatory prior administrative review, and Sudik was reinstated as adviser.

Shafer said she hopes no one will ever have to go through what they did, but she has no regrets. “We stood up for what we knew was right and protected our staff and hopefully in some way helped many other high school journalists. I know it made me a stronger person and helped me to realize how important newspaper really is to me. I got a glimpse of what real journalists have to go through: people trying everything they can to keep them from printing a story that is important to be told,” she said.

Gutierrez credits the SPLC for its support and legal assistance. “They were always very encouraging and would tell us we were in the right and everything would turn out right. It was always so hard walking down the hallways when you're in a legal battle with the people there, but the SPLC helped a lot with how to deal with them and if anything were to happen how to deal with it.”

Mark Goodman, Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University’s Center for Scholastic Journalism, said of the winners, “These students' actions reflect a commitment to the truth that is inspiring. The untimely death of a high school athlete is the kind of story that no journalist ever hopes to confront. But these students showed how well such a story can be told when scholastic journalists are given the freedom to simply report the facts.”

“Jaclyn and Lori embody the kind of courage this award recognizes,” said Logan Aimone, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association. “Relevant and responsible journalism is easy to defend. Despite exceptional obstacles placed in the way of telling the story, the staff of the Scout stood strong, and student journalists everywhere can be proud.”

Colorado is one of seven states that provide special statutory protection for high school journalists. According to the Colorado Student Free Expression Law, student publications can be restricted only if they contain obscene or defamatory material, or if they promote unlawful acts, the disruption of school, or a violation of privacy rights.

“When the skeptics ask why we need student free-press laws, Overland High School is the answer. Free-press laws do not lead to lawsuits – they prevent them. Colorado’s law made it so clear that what the school was preparing to do was illegal that everything quickly resolved itself just as it should have, with no harm done to the students, the adviser, or the journalism program,” LoMonte said.

Schafer and Gutierrez will receive the Courage in Student Journalism Award at the National Scholastic Press Association/Journalism Education Association National Convention in Minneapolis before an audience of thousands of high school journalists and advisers.

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