Four Virginia students, Indiana principal win journalism awards

VIRGINIA — Four student editors from Virginia and ahigh school principal from Indiana are the winners of the fourthannual Courage in Student Journalism Awards, presented by theNewseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National ScholasticPress Association. The awards are presented annually to studentjournalists and school officials. Student winners are journalistswho have shown determination, despite difficulty and resistance,in exercising their First Amendment press rights. School administratorsare selected on the basis of demonstrated support, under difficultcircumstances, 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 GeorgeWashington High School in Danville, Va., and ThomasWachnicki, principal of Avon High School in Avon, Ind. Theawards will be presented on Nov. 10 at the National ScholasticPress 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 standup to forces in their schools and communities that threaten theirFirst Amendment rights should be rewarded for their courage,”said Newseum Education Director Leonard Hall. “The Couragein Student Journalism Awards celebrate the important role thatscholastic journalism plays in our society and send the messagethat there is nothing to fear about a responsible student press.”

The student winners, who are editors of George Washington HighSchool’s newsmagazine, The Chatterbox, received their awardfor standing up to threats of censorship from the school’s principaland the Danville School Board. The April 2001 issue of the award-winningschool publication contained articles on issues such as sexuallytransmitted diseases, pregnancy, oral sex, interracial datingand homosexuality. Just before the issue was scheduled to go topress, the school’s principal sent the articles to the superintendentof the school board, who ordered that the magazine not be printeduntil the board had reviewed the articles. The board discussedthe matter in an executive session with no students or adviserspresent, then informed the student editors that they were planningto insert a letter in The Chatterbox, the content of whichthey refused to reveal to the editors.

After consulting with an attorney from the Student Press LawCenter, the students wrote to the school board chairman to informhim that it was illegal for the board to require the editors toprint an item they had not seen, because The Chatterboxhad established a 30-year history as an open forum publicationwith no prior review. The students also said that if they didagree to run the board’s letter after reviewing it, the magazine’seditors had the right to run a disclaimer. The editors notifiedlocal news media of the censorship issue and received communitysupport from a former mayor, journalism professor, teachers, parentsand students, many of whom made their views known at the nextschool board meeting, resulting in positive news coverage andfavorable editorials. The April issue was finally published, amonth late, with the school board’s insert and a prominent disclaimerfrom the student editors. “The effort these students madeto cover sensitive issues responsibly and then to defend the independenceof their publication was truly exceptional,” said Mark Goodman,executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

The award to Wachnicki recognizes his unwavering support ofAvon High School’s student newspaper, Echo, in the faceof community opposition. In his first year as the school’s principal,Wachnicki has consistently supported a free student press at hisschool, particularly regarding an article in the Echo onsexually transmitted diseases that unleashed a storm of criticism.A local minister devoted an entire sermon to condemning Wachnicki’srefusal to censor the student newspaper, and a member of the communitytold Wachnicki that permitting the article to be published madehim personally responsible for every girl who loses her virginitywhile attending Avon High School. On other occasions, when theEcho was criticized by players and coaches for articlesabout the school’s sports teams, the principal continued to defendhis students’ First Amendment rights. The Echo was thesubject of controversy the previous year when the former principaltried to pull an article about hazing practices among membersof the school’s football team. Marina Hennessey, the student reporterwho defended the paper’s right to run the story, won the Couragein Student Journalism Award in 2000. “Few principals facesuch a barrage of personal criticism from the community for whattheir students publish. The fact that Wachnicki did not succumbto the pressure to censor, especially during his first year atthe school, is a reflection of both his commitment to studentvoices and his courage,” said Goodman.

The Courage in Student Journalism Awards are sponsored by theNewseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National ScholasticPress Association. The Newseum, the interactive museum of newsin Arlington, Va., opened in 1997 and is funded by The FreedomForum, a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free press, freespeech and free spirit for all people. Since 1974, the StudentPress Law Center has been the only national organization exclusivelydevoted to providing free legal advice and assistance to studentjournalists and advisers and serving as an advocate for theirfree 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 criticalanalyses for print and electronic student news media and sponsorthe largest annual national conventions for student journalistsand their advisers.

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