Awards honor student, principal for press freedom

VIRGINIA — The first annual Courage in Student Journalism Awards were presented in April to a student editor who sought to publish a story about a shoplifting incident and to the principal at Blair High School who publicly backed his students as they fought the superintendent to have their controversial cable program aired.

The awards were sponsored by the Newseum, the interactive museum of news in Arlington funded by The Freedom Forum.

Student winner Dan Vagasky was honored for his efforts to print an article while he was editor of Otsego Middle School’s student newspaper, the Bulldog Express, in Michigan. The story explained an act of shoplifting committed by a student while on a school-sponsored ski trip, and it included information from the police arrest report. The student’s name was not mentioned in the story.

School officials censored the story, although they conceded that it was accurate. Otsego School Superintendent James Leyndyke said in an interview with the Kalamazoo Gazette, “I view any piece of information that comes out of the schools as our opportunity to put our best foot forward. We would not pay … to show what we do poorly.”

The school’s principal temporarily shut down the Bulldog Express, reducing it from an award-winning newspaper to shell of the former product.

As a result of the school officials’ action, Vagasky filed a lawsuit in federal court, but he has reached an out-of-court settlement. That agreement provides student press guidelines, which guarantee that only libelous or obscene material may be prohibited. Vagasky’s attorney, Devin Schindler, said that they are “perfectly content” with the new guidelines.

Also honored with an award was Phillip Gainous, principal of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, who backed his students after county administrators pulled the plug on Shades of Grey, the student-produced cable program that sparked controversy with a discussion panel on same-sex marriage.

Upon receiving his award, Gainous commented that “All I did was go along for the ride. … [The students] did all the work,” referring to their efforts appealing to the school board and organizing press conferences. “I’m learning from them. They take their jobs responsibly.”

The Courage in Student Journalism Awards will be presented annually by the Newseum to school officials and student journalists who show determination, despite difficult circumstances, in exercising the First Amendment rights of their school’s student media.