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PRESS RELEASE: Kentucky Student Editors, Tennessee Adviser Recognized for Journalistic Courage

September 18, 2012

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


Students at a Kentucky high school who overcame administrative censorship by launching their own independent publication, and a Tennessee yearbook adviser who was reassigned after defending his students’ right to publish a candid article about being gay, are the winners of the 2012 Courage in Student Journalism Award.

The recipients are the staff of The Red Pen, an independent newspaper at duPont Manual High School in Louisville, Ky., and James Yoakley, the former newspaper and yearbook adviser at Lenoir City High School, Tenn., who has since been reassigned to teach seventh-grade English teacher at Lenoir City Middle School.

The awards are given annually 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. The awards will be presented on Nov. 17 at the National High School Journalism Convention in San Antonio.

The Red Pen was the brainstorm of student staffers at duPont Manual’s official student publication, The Redeye, who became frustrated with edicts from their principal to refrain from mentioning topics that might cause controversy, including homosexuality. The students even were forbidden from publishing a news story about the arrest and firing of a teacher whose removal was already well-publicized in the local media.

The students – Zoe Schaver, Patrick Hartel, Emily McConville, Kelsey McKim, Dakota Sherek and Virginia Johnson – used their own off-campus time to build a website, www.theredpen.org, and raised the money to distribute a print version.

Schaver, one of six student organizers, said, “Our teachers prepared us so well for journalism in the real world. So when we, The Red Pen's editors, all joined school publications and ran, time and time again, up against an administration that was highly uncomfortable with most kinds of controversy, we decided that as journalists our duty was to create a way we could report on those crucial, if controversial, topics—despite the influences of a conservative administration. The Red Pen was essentially a product of all we had learned as journalism students—all we had learned about the true purpose of journalism, including that fulfilling this purpose was vital to the existence of an open, fair society.”

Schaver credits the assistance she and the staff received from the SPLC during the transition: “We read up on the issue on the SPLC's website, learning what we needed to do to avoid being punished by that same administration we were circumventing.”

SPLC Executive Director Frank D. LoMonte said, “The Red Pen is simply one of the highest quality ‘underground’ publications you will ever see. Through their determination, these students conclusively proved three things. First, they proved that you can give a student audience uncensored news about topical issues without the sky falling. Second, they proved that censorship always fails, because it’s impossible in the 21st century to keep information under wraps. And third, they proved that students are often more mature and blessed with better judgment than the people in charge of their schools.”

Yoakley was named the non-student winner of the “Courage” award for his outspoken defense of press freedom in the face of two nationally publicized censorship incidents. First, administrators refused to allow the editor-in-chief of the newspaper to publish an opinion column about how atheists felt ostracized at the school. Then, the school board and superintendent publicly vilified students for publishing a first-person yearbook story, in which a student told his story about coming out as gay to his parents. 

“I am amazed that doing the right thing, though not necessarily the easy thing, could develop into a story that garnered national attention,” Yoakley said. “The spring and summer were filled with censorship, reprisals, and a fear of what might happen. Even though the outcome was not ideal, right, or perhaps, even finished, I hope that students are inspired to continue to write the stories that deserve to be told, to tackle the difficult subjects with zeal, and to give voice to students who are so often kept silent.”

Yoakley said the SPLC support during the controversy was vital to him. “The encouragement they provided and the publicity they gave my story, my students’ story, have helped me in ways I cannot express,” he said.

“In the face of vicious bullying by the superintendent and school board of the Lenoir City School District, James Yoakley put himself in harm’s way to protect his vulnerable students. The First Amendment matters most when disempowered minorities seek to have their voices heard alongside the majority’s. James Yoakley understands that, and by his example he lives it. He showed his students – and all students – what it means to honor the American values of our Constitution even when it would be easier to give in to the braying voices of ignorance and hate,” LoMonte said. 

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center provides free information and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a wide variety of legal topics on its website at www.splc.org.

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© 2012 Student Press Law Center

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