Fla. college student newspaper and Mich. high school editor receive press freedom awards

A Florida college student newspaper thatfought to keep public records open and a Michigan high school editor who battledto publish information contained in public records were recognized for theirefforts this month.

The Independent Florida Alligator, a studentnewspaper at the University of Florida, was presented with the 2003 CollegePress Freedom Award at the Associated Collegiate Press/College Media Advisersnational convention in Dallas on Nov. 8.

The award, sponsored by theStudent Press Law Center and the Associated Collegiate Press, is given each yearto a college student journalist or student news organization that hasdemonstrated outstanding support for the free press rights ofstudents.

For the last two years, The Independent has fought toprevent Florida courts from permanently sealing the autopsy photos of race cardriver Dale Earnhardt and from enforcing a law, passed two months after hisdeath, that allows Florida state officials and judges to determine the editorialappropriateness of a freedom of information request before making governmentdocuments available.

The newspaper contends that the law sets a dangerousprecedent and violates the First Amendment because it allows courts to grant ordeny access to public records based on a speaker’s viewpoint.

InSeptember, The Independent Florida Alligator appealed to the U.S. SupremeCourt in a final effort to preserve public access to the photos. It isappealing a Florida state court’s ruling that denied the newspaper’srequest.

Earnhardt, a seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion, was killedFeb. 18, 2001, when his car hit the wall on the final turn at the Daytona500.

Following the crash, there was considerable speculation about howEarnhardt had died. At the time, many argued that having an expert review thephotos could help determine whether better safety equipment, which was notrequired by NASCAR, could have saved the driver’s life.

The newspaper’slegal challenge has been vehemently denounced, especially by NASCAR fans whohave bombarded the newspaper and its attorneys with angry e-mails and telephonecalls. While The Independent has always maintained that it has nointerest in publishing or even possessing copies of the autopsy photos, rumorsabout how the photos would be used by the media sparked considerableoutrage.

The newspaper’s building has been vandalized, newsracksdestroyed and newspapers set on fire. Staff members have received multiple deaththreats, including one, directed to the newspaper’s managing editor, thatthreatened to “kill you and your whole staff and put your autopsy photos on theInternet.”

But for over two years, the student newspaper has perseveredin its efforts, something that has impressed many.

“While it may not bepopular, the fact is that autopsy photos have historically played a criticalrole in press reports about murders, medical malpractice, prison deaths andother public controversies,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of theStudent Press Law Center.

“That The Independent Florida Alligatorwas willing to stand up – alone – in the face of intense public criticism andphysical threats for a principle it believed in should serve as an inspirationto all journalists,” said Goodman. “Anyone can fight for what is popular. Truecourage is demonstrated when you dare to stand for what isnot.”

Meanwhile, Katherine Dean, former managing editor of theArrow , the student newspaper at Utica High School in Utica, Mich., receivedthe 2003 Courage in Student Journalism Award.

The Student Press LawCenter, the Newseum and the National Scholastic Press Association presented theaward to Dean Nov. 22 at the NSPA/Journalism Education Association fallconvention. The annual award recognizes a student journalist who has fought touphold the freedom of the student press despite resistance or difficultcircumstances.

Dean’s struggle began in March 2002 when she co-wrote anarticle about a lawsuit filed by local residents who alleged that diesel fumesfrom idling school buses parked at the Utica Community School’s garage wasdetrimental to their health. One of the plaintiffs alleged the fumes caused himto develop cancer. Utica school officials withheld the article on March 7,2002, one day before it was scheduled for publication.

Since then, Deanand the newspaper staff have fought school officials over the censorship. TheAmerican Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit on behalf of Dean onApril 4, 2003, alleging that school officials violated Dean’s First Amendmentrights because the article might “embarrass school officials.” The lawsuit ispending in federal district court.

After it was censored by the school,Dean’s article appeared in the local Macomb Daily newspaper with aneditorial criticizing the school. Several other Michigan newspapers andtelevision stations reported on Dean’s struggle.

“Katy Dean’s struggle isan example to journalists everywhere,” said Mark Goodman, executive director ofthe Student Press Law Center. “She has stood up to the pressure from her schoolbecause she put the health and safety of her readers first.”

Deanreceived $5,000 from the Newseum for winning the award.

“It’s atremendous honor,” Dean said. “My case has helped me realize that the FirstAmendment is not some far-off ideal that was fought for hundreds of years ago,but a significant right that we need to fight for everyday.”