SPLC presents student press freedom awards

A Florida college student newspaper that fought to keep records public and a Michigan high school reporter who fought censorship at her school were recognized for their efforts by the Student Press Law Center in November.

The Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper at the University of Florida, was awarded the 2003 College Press Freedom Award.

The award, sponsored by the SPLC and the Associated Collegiate Press, is given each year to a college student journalist or news organization that has supported the free press rights of students.

For more than two years, The Alligator has fought to prevent Florida courts from sealing the autopsy photographs of deceased racecar driver Dale Earnhardt. The newspaper took its case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it sought to overturn a Florida law that allows state officials and judges to determine the editorial appropriateness of an open-records request before making government documents available. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in December. 

The newspaper’s legal challenge has drawn outspoken critics, especially NASCAR fans who have bombarded the newspaper and its attorneys with angry e-mails and telephone calls. 

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

But the student newspaper has persevered in its efforts.

“That The 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 Mark Goodman, executive director of the SPLC. 

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 from the SPLC, the Newseum and the National Scholastic Press Association. 

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 a school garage were harmful 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.

Since then, Dean has fought school officials over the censorship. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit on behalf of Dean on April 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.

“It’s a tremendous honor,” Dean said. “My case has helped me realize that the First Amendment is not some far-off ideal … but a significant right that we need to fight for every day.” n