California high school editor who battled censorship at neighboring school to receive press freedom award

ARLINGTON, Va. — The editor of a student newspaper who ignoredintimidation and threats to defend and expose the censorship of a studentnewspaper at a neighboring high school has been named a recipient of the2000 Scholastic Press Freedom Award.

Nick Edwards, former co-editor in chief of the Stingerat AdolfoCamarillo High School in Camarillo, Calif., will be presented the awardat the National Scholastic Press Association/Journalism Education AssociationNational Convention at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Mo., onSaturday, Nov. 18.

The award, sponsored by the Student Press Law Center and the NationalScholastic Press Association/Associated Collegiate Press, is giveneach year to a high school student journalist or student news medium thathas demonstrated outstanding support for the free press rights of students.

Edwards’ effort began after the principal at neighboring Rio Mesa HighSchool censored stories about teen pregnancy from the pages of that school’sstudent newspaper, The Spartan,last March. When Nick learned ofthe censorship, he contacted The Spartan’sstaff and offered hissupport.

Over the next few weeks, Edwards took up the cause of student pressfreedom. He immediately began researching the incident and discovered thatthe principal’s censorship violated California Education Code section 48907,which specifically prohibits the censorship of student publications unlessmaterial is libelous, obscene or substantially disruptive. He was hungup on when he called the Rio Mesa principal to interview him about theincident. The district superintendent did talk to him, but after mentioningthe school’s lawyer, he refused to tell Edwards what the attorney’s namewas. Edwards called every person in the district office until he uncoveredthat name so that he could interview him, too.

After completing his thorough research, Edwards wrote a news story forhis paper and made another important decision. He decided that despitethe fact he was in the same school district as Rio Mesa and under the authorityof the same superintendent, he would publish the censored story from TheSpartanin the pages of his newspaper, the Stinger. Accordingto Edwards, the community needed to understand how journalistically solidthe censored story was, and they wouldn’t know that if they could not readit.

From that point on, the effort to censor focused as much on Nick Edwardsas it had on the newspaper at Rio Mesa. When his principal, who had beensupportive of the paper and had never demanded prior review, learned ofEdwards’ plans, he called him into his office. As Edwards later said, hespent more time in the principal’s office that week than “the criminalelement on campus.” The principal attempted to pressure and intimidateEdwards into not publishing the censored story. Even his adviser, who nominatedhim for this award, said she attempted to persuade him to rethink his decisionto publish the story because of the pressure that was being placed on herby school officials. When the superintendent threatened Edwards with punishment,he explained why he had to do what he had to do: student press rights andthe law of California had been violated, and the community deserved completecoverage of the issue.

On March 29, the Stingerpublished a front-page story under theheading “Freedom of Press under Fire.” Inside, it published the censoredarticle, which provided the thoughtful stories of four students in theschool’s Teen Parent Program, as well as a graphic that was to have accompaniedit. The staff published an editorial that offered their objections to censorshipand their support for press freedom.

Although neither the school district nor the Rio Mesa principal everapologized for their actions, they did admit that their actions were inconflict with California law. Edwards published that story in the Aprilissue of his newspaper. In an editorial, Edwards made his point clear:”I know a district must support itsprincipals,but a district shouldalso support its principles.… It would be refreshing to see thedistrict do its job, educate us on the First Amendment and maturely admitthat it was wrong.”

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Mark Goodman, who will presentthe award to Edwards, said he believes that the young journalist’s couragein standing up for the rights of The Spartanis remarkable.

“Nick was willing to risk his own press freedom in defense of the pressfreedom of others,” Goodman said. “The integrity demonstrated by his wordsand deeds is a source of inspiration to anyone who believes in the causeof freedom.

“For the example he set and the courage he displayed, Nick Edwards hasmade a contribution to his community that will be felt for years to come,”Goodman said.

Mark Goodman, Executive Director
Student Press Law Center
(703) 807-1904