Winners of Courage in Student Journalism Award announced

VIRGINIA — A former high school newspaper editor in Arkansas and a high school principal in Missouri will receive the fifth annual Courage in Student Journalism Awards, presented by the Newseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association. The awards are presented each year to student journalists and school officials who have demonstrated exceptional support, despite resistance or difficult circumstances, for student press freedom.

This year’s winners are Holly Ballard, former senior editor of the Prospective, the student newspaper at Bryant High School in Alexander, Ark., and Dr. Julie Leeth, principal of Hillcrest High School in Springfield, Mo. Each winner will receive a $5,000 prize, which will be presented at the National Scholastic Press Association/Journalism Education Association Fall Convention in Dallas on Nov. 23.

“We applaud this year’s winners, who upheld the principles of the First Amendment in the face of daunting opposition,” said Newseum Programs Director Rich Foster. “At a time when our rights could be compromised because of the desire for greater security, it is heartening to see the First Amendment championed with such a sense of commitment in our high schools.”

Ballard, now a freshman at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is being recognized for her defense of press freedom for the Prospective, Bryant High School’s student newspaper, last spring. A student journalist was preparing a story about discrimination based on sexual orientation, the final article in a three-part series that included previous stories on racial and religious discrimination. When the principal of Bryant High School learned that questionnaires on sexual discrimination had been distributed to students to gather information for the story, he confiscated the surveys and ordered the article stopped. He also created new rules for the newspaper’s staff and faculty adviser, which stated that he must approve all “controversial” topics to be covered in the paper and he would review and approve each issue of the paper before it went to press. Eventually, the district’s school board proposed new policies that gave editorial control over student publications to administrators. The district also delayed renewal of the newspaper adviser’s contract based on concerns about the student newspaper’s content.

Ballard and her fellow staff members wrote a detailed rebuttal to the principal’s proposed policy changes and met with him to discuss their concerns. As senior editor of the Prospective, Ballard became the spokesperson for the students, giving interviews about the growing controversy to the local and national media. She coordinated the student effort to call school board members to oppose the policy changes. By June, the school board had renewed the adviser’s contract and accepted a compromise policy proposed by the students. The principal dropped his demand for prior review and approval.

Leeth is being recognized for her ongoing defense of student press freedom in Springfield schools for 28 years. One of her most courageous stands on freedom of the press came in the fall of 2001, when a commentary that aired on Hillcrest High School’s student cable TV news program, “HTV Magazine,” came under fire. In it, a student compared the scheming that occurs among contestants on reality television programs with the behavior at monthly school board meetings. After the segment’s initial airing, the district superintendent demanded that the remark be removed from the program before it aired again. The HTV staff and faculty adviser refused to edit the program and pulled the entire show until the matter could be settled. Without hesitation, Leeth sided with the students and against her superiors. While school district officials debated whether they could legally enforce the censorship, Leeth questioned the lessons the school system was teaching the students about a free press and First Amendment rights.

Thanks to Leeth’s support, the show aired unchanged. But in response, the district adopted new guidelines that call for prior review of all student-produced programs. Despite these changes, Leeth has not wavered in her support for “HTV Magazine” and demonstrates her continued support for the students’ press freedom by refusing to preview shows before they air, while continuing to take full responsibility for their content. In the words of the program’s student news directors, her support for press freedom “has made our school and our community better-informed and helped scholastic journalism become something special at Hillcrest.”

“At a time when threats against student press freedom are greater than they have ever been, the courage demonstrated by these two individuals is an inspiration to all who care about the future of the First Amendment in our democracy,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

The Courage in Student Journalism Awards are sponsored by the Newseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association. The Newseum, the interactive museum of news planned for Washington, D.C., 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.