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

A Florida college student newspaper that fought to keep public records open and a Michigan high school editor who battled to publish information contained in public records were recognized for their efforts this month.

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

The award, sponsored by the Student Press Law Center and the Associated Collegiate Press, is given each year to a college student journalist or student news organization that has demonstrated outstanding support for the free press rights of students.

For the last two years, The Independent has fought to prevent Florida courts from permanently sealing the autopsy photos of race car driver Dale Earnhardt and from enforcing a law, passed two months after his death, that allows Florida state officials and judges to determine the editorial appropriateness of a freedom of information request before making government documents available.

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

In September, The Independent Florida Alligator appealed to the U.S. SupremeCourt in a final effort to preserve public access to the photos. It is appealing a Florida state court’s ruling that denied the newspaper’s request.

Earnhardt, a seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion, was killed Feb. 18, 2001, when his car hit the wall on the final turn at the Daytona 500.

Following the crash, there was considerable speculation about how Earnhardt had died. At the time, many argued that having an expert review the photos could help determine whether better safety equipment, which was not required by NASCAR, could have saved the driver’s life.

The newspaper’s legal challenge has been vehemently denounced, especially by NASCAR fans who have bombarded the newspaper and its attorneys with angry e-mails and telephone calls. While The Independent has always maintained that it has no interest in publishing or even possessing copies of the autopsy photos, rumors about how the photos would be used by the media sparked considerable outrage.

The newspaper’s building has been vandalized, news racks destroyed and newspapers set on fire. Staff members have received multiple death threats, including one, directed to the newspaper’s managing editor, that threatened to “kill you and your whole staff and put your autopsy photos on theInternet.”

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

“While it may not be popular, the fact is that autopsy photos have historically played a critical role in press reports about murders, medical malpractice, prison deaths and other public controversies,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“That The Independent Florida Alligator was willing to stand up – alone – in the face of intense public criticism and physical threats for a principle it believed in should serve as an inspiration to all journalists,” said Goodman. “Anyone can fight for what is popular. True courage is demonstrated when you dare to stand for what is not.”

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

The Student Press Law Center, the Newseum and the National Scholastic Press Association presented the award to Dean Nov. 22 at the NSPA/Journalism Education Association fall convention. The annual award recognizes a student journalist who has fought to uphold the freedom of the student press despite resistance or difficult circumstances.

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

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

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

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

Dean received $5,000 from the Newseum for winning the award.

“It’s a tremendous 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.”