College newspaper and high school editor receive Scholastic Press Freedom Award

The editor of a student newspaper who exposed the censorship of a studentnewspaper at a neighboring high school and a college newspaper that uncoveredthe details of a lavish contract given to their former university presidentreceived the 2000 Scholastic Press Freedom Award.

Nick Edwards, a former editor of the Stinger at Camarillo HighSchool in Camarillo, Calif., and the staff of the Muleskinner, thestudent newspaper at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg receivedthe awards in November.

The award, sponsored by the Student Press Law Center and the NationalScholastic Press Association/Associated Collegiate Press, is given eachyear to a high school and a college student journalist or student newsmedium that has demonstrated outstanding support for the free press rightsof students.

Edwardsí effort began after the principal at neighboring RioMesa High School censored stories about teen pregnancy from the pages ofthat schoolís student newspaper, The Spartan, last March.Edwards contacted The Spartan’s staff and offered his support.

Over the next few weeks, Edwards took up the cause of student pressfreedom. After researching the subject, Edwards wrote a news story forhis paper and published the censored story from The Spartan in thepages of his newspaper, the Stinger. According to Edwards, the communityneeded to understand how journalistically solid the censored story was,and they would not know that if they could not read it.

From that point on, the effort to censor focused as much on Nick Edwardsas it had on the newspaper at Rio Mesa. As Edwards later said, he spentmore time in the principal’s office that week than “the criminal elementon campus.” 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.

Ultimately, the Stinger published a front-page news story aboutthe censorship and inside it published the censored article along withan editorial in support of press freedom.

SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman said he believes that Edwardsícourage in standing up for the rights of The Spartan is remarkable.

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

The Muleskinner’s battle started after it sought access to thecontract that the CMSU Board of Governors signed with Ed Elliott, the schoolísretiring president.

Their research revealed that Elliot was to be paid $621,000 over threeyears after his retirement. The severance contract also provided Elliottwith a package of benefits that the Missouri state auditor ultimately describedas “excessive.”

As the Muleskinner staff dug into the story, university officialsdenounced student reporters, threatened their adviser and refused to answerquestions. The Muleskinner’s published editorials emphasizing theimportance of free expression for all students on campus.

Based on the Muleskinner’s coverage, the state auditor examinedCMSUís records and found a number of “improper compensation andperquisites” in Elliottís contract.  Shortly after the storyabout the presidentís contract broke, university officials toldthe Muleskinner’s adviser that it would not be renewing her contractfor the 2000-2001 school year.

Goodman commended the newspaper’s tenacity and commitment to providingits readers with a full and accurate story — even when it became apparentthat some school officials would do what they could to block their efforts.

“There are few stories more important to the public than those uncoveringthe abuse of public funds,” said Goodman. “The Muleskinner remindsus all of the vital role played by a strong and independent press.”