Four Virginia students, Indiana principal win journalism awards

VIRGINIA — Four student editors from Virginia and a high school principal from Indiana are the winners of the fourth annual Courage in Student Journalism Awards, presented by the Newseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National ScholasticPress Association. The awards are presented annually to student journalists and school officials. Student winners are journalists who have shown determination, despite difficulty and resistance, in exercising their First Amendment press rights. School administrators are selected on the basis of demonstrated support, under difficult circumstances, for the First Amendment press rights of their schools’ student media.

This year’s winners are Beth Covington, Thomas Silvers, Erin Grantier and Rachel Johnson, student editors at George Washington High School in Danville, Va., and Thomas Wachnicki, principal of Avon High School in Avon, Ind. The awards will be presented on Nov. 10 at the National Scholastic Press Association/Journalism Education Association (NSPA/JEA) convention in Boston. The four student winners will share one $5,000 prize, and Wachnicki will receive the other $5,000 prize.

“Student journalists and school administrators who stand up to forces in their schools and communities that threaten their First Amendment rights should be rewarded for their courage,” said Newseum Education Director Leonard Hall. “The Courage in Student Journalism Awards celebrate the important role that scholastic journalism plays in our society and send the message that there is nothing to fear about a responsible student press.”

The student winners, who are editors of George Washington High School’s newsmagazine, The Chatterbox, received their award for standing up to threats of censorship from the school’s principal and the Danville School Board. The April 2001 issue of the award-winning school publication contained articles on issues such as sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, oral sex, interracial dating and homosexuality. Just before the issue was scheduled to go to press, the school’s principal sent the articles to the superintendent of the school board, who ordered that the magazine not be printed until the board had reviewed the articles. The board discussed the matter in an executive session with no students or advisers present, then informed the student editors that they were planning to insert a letter in The Chatterbox, the content of which they refused to reveal to the editors.

After consulting with an attorney from the Student Press Law Center, the students wrote to the school board chairman to inform him that it was illegal for the board to require the editors to print an item they had not seen, because The Chatterbox had established a 30-year history as an open forum publication with no prior review. The students also said that if they did agree to run the board’s letter after reviewing it, the magazine’s editors had the right to run a disclaimer. The editors notified local news media of the censorship issue and received community support from a former mayor, journalism professor, teachers, parents and students, many of whom made their views known at the next school board meeting, resulting in positive news coverage and favorable editorials. The April issue was finally published, a month late, with the school board’s insert and a prominent disclaimer from the student editors. “The effort these students made to cover sensitive issues responsibly and then to defend the independence of their publication was truly exceptional,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

The award to Wachnicki recognizes his unwavering support of Avon High School’s student newspaper, Echo, in the face of community opposition. In his first year as the school’s principal, Wachnicki has consistently supported a free student press at his school, particularly regarding an article in the Echo on sexually transmitted diseases that unleashed a storm of criticism. A local minister devoted an entire sermon to condemning Wachnicki’s refusal to censor the student newspaper, and a member of the community told Wachnicki that permitting the article to be published made him personally responsible for every girl who loses her virginity while attending Avon High School. On other occasions, when the Echo was criticized by players and coaches for articles about the school’s sports teams, the principal continued to defend his students’ First Amendment rights. The Echo was the subject of controversy the previous year when the former principal tried to pull an article about hazing practices among members of the school’s football team. Marina Hennessey, the student reporter who defended the paper’s right to run the story, won the Courage in Student Journalism Award in 2000. “Few principals face such a barrage of personal criticism from the community for what their students publish. The fact that Wachnicki did not succumb to the pressure to censor, especially during his first year at the school, is a reflection of both his commitment to student voices and his courage,” said Goodman.

The Courage in Student Journalism Awards are sponsored by the Newseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National ScholasticPress Association. The Newseum, the interactive museum of news in Arlington, Va., opened in 1997 and is funded by The Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people. Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been the only national organization exclusively devoted to providing free legal advice and assistance to student journalists and advisers and serving as an advocate for their free press and freedom of information rights. Founded in 1921, the National Scholastic Press Association and its college division, the Associated Collegiate Press, provide rating services and critical analyses for print and electronic student news media and sponsor the largest annual national conventions for student journalists and their advisers.

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