Former Auburn editor who battled censure wins press freedom award

\nThe former editor of the Auburn University student newspaper who\nwas threatened with removal because of her paper’s critical coverage\nof a university trustee has received the 1999 Scholastic Press\nFreedom Award.

The award, sponsored by the Student Press Law Center and the\nNational Scholastic Press Association/Associated Collegiate Press,\nis given each year to the high school or college student journalist\nor student news medium that has demonstrated outstanding support\nfor the free press rights of students.

Lee Davidson, the 1998-99 editor of The Auburn Plainsman, who\nis now a reporter for the Mobile Register, accepted the award\nbefore an audience of hundreds of college journalists and advisers\nat the Associated Collegiate Press/College Media Advisers national\nconvention in Atlanta on Nov. 30.

The situation that resulted in Davidson’s recognition began\nin the fall of 1998 when The Plainsman published a story\nin which numerous sources, including members of the school’s board\nof trustees, questioned the influence and control over university\nbusiness wielded by one member of the board. The newspaper also\neditorialized about the appropriateness of one trustee having\nso much influence.

In response to the coverage, the trustee, Alabama businessman\nBobby Lowder, stopped talking to the Plainsman. For over\na month, despite the growing controversy over his actions, he\nrefused to respond to requests from the student paper for interviews\nabout any subject.

On Dec. 3, 1998, the paper responded by publishing a front\npage that was blank except for the few comments made by Lowder\nand an explanation that the newspaper had chosen the dramatic\ntactic to represent to its readers the “unreported facts”\nthat they did not know because of Lowder’s refusal to talk.

Although many on campus wrote to offer their support for the\npaper and the stand it had taken, a month later, the campus communications\nboard, which was dominated by student government leaders, voted\nto censure the newspaper and Davidson for “irresponsible\ncoverage.” The resolution threatened Davidson with removal\nif she continued to publish similar material.

Despite the threat, Davidson refused to back off and made the\nthreat public knowledge throughout the state and the nation. “They’re\nnot taking on Lee Davidson, they’re taking on The Plainsman,” she said. “And if they want to take on free speech and\nthe First Amendment, they can.”

After a landslide of public condemnation for its action, the\ncommunications board rescinded the portion of its resolution that\nthreatened removal of the editor.

In presenting the award to Davidson, SPLC Executive Director\nMark Goodman described the editor’s stand as a courageous defense\nof her readers’ rights to the facts.

“At significant risk to her own position, Lee Davidson\ntook a stand in favor of freedom of information and press freedom.\nThe discussion that resulted, which continues to this day on the\nAuburn campus and around the state, has made the vitality of a\nfree campus press a very real issue and prompted thousands of\nindividuals to voice their support for the values embodied in\nthe First Amendment.”

Nominees for the scholastic Press Freedom Award are accepted\nuntil August 1 of each year.