SPLC PRESS RELEASE: Ohio high school student editors that fought censorship receive press freedom award

VIRGINIA — Four Ohio student journalists who sued their school after officials confiscated 4,500 copies of their student newspaper have been named the 2004 winners of the Courage in Student Journalism Award.

Darcie Draudt, Tim Yaczo, Kendra Oyer and Vasanth Ananath, all former editors of The Wooster Blade at Wooster High School will share the $5,000 prize. The award was presented to former editor in chief Draudt at the National Scholastic Press Association/Journalism Education Association Fall Convention in Atlanta on Nov. 20. The Courage in Student Journalism Award is presented each year to a student journalist who has demonstrated exceptional support, despite resistance or difficult circumstances, for student press freedom. The award is sponsored by the Newseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association.

The students’ legal battle began when their school superintendent impounded the entire press run of a December 2002 issue of their student newspaper. He claimed a front-page article about how the school was handling punishment for student athletes caught drinking alcohol contained “potentially defamatory” information. In the article, the daughter of a school board member was quoted as saying that she drank alcohol at an off-campus party and was disciplined for violating the school’s code of conduct for athletes. The student journalists maintained the girl told a Wooster Blade reporter that she had been drinking at the party; however, the newspaper subsequently acknowledged that girl was not punished for the incident. The Blade’s story, which raised questions about the school board’s actions in lifting student punishments issued by administrators, prompted a community-wide discussion of the issue.

In January 2003, the students filed a lawsuit against the school to force officials to release the newspaper. The following month, in a preliminary ruling, a U.S. District Court recognized that the student newspaper had greater protection than that provided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case because the school had opened the publication as a public forum for student expression by giving the students authority to make their own content decisions. The ruling in Draudt v. City of Wooster, 246 F. Supp. 2d 820 (N.D. Ohio 2003), the first of its kind in the country, has subsequently been cited by another federal court in rejecting censorship of a student newspaper in Michigan. Dean v. Utica Community Schools, No. 03-CV-71367DT (Nov. 17, 2004).

In November 2003, the Wooster students settled their case. The board of education agreed to pay $5,000 to charities designated by the students as well as $30,000 to their attorney and agreed to avoid confiscating the student newspaper in the future without first talking with the student editors.

“These students’ courage in fighting for the principle of press freedom has already had an impact,” said Student Press Law Center Executive Director Mark Goodman. “Not only did they more firmly establish the press freedom of their publication, but they also created a precedent that other student publications around the nation can use to fight censorship at their own schools.”

Mark Goodman
Executive Director
Student Press Law Center
Read the decision in Draudt v. City of Wooster, 246 F. Supp. 2d 820 (N.D. Ohio 2003).
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