Winners of 2007 Courage in Student Journalism awards announced

Media Contacts: Tina Tate, Newseum, 202/253-2730 (cell), 703/284-3524 (office) Barbara McCormack, 703/638-3039 (cell), 703/284-3775 (office) Mike Hiestand, interim executive director, Student Press Law Center, 703/807-1904 (office)

ARLINGTON, Va. — Eric Sheforgen, a graduate of St. Francis High School in Minnesota, and Amy Sorrell, former student media adviser and journalism teacher at Woodlan High School in Indiana, will receive the 2007 Courage in Student Journalism Awards, presented by the Newseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association.

The Courage in Student Journalism Awards are presented each year to a student journalist and faculty member who have demonstrated exceptional determination and support for student press freedom, despite resistance or difficult circumstances.

Sheforgen, former editor in chief of St. Francis’s school newspaper, The Crier, will receive a $5,000 award in the student category. Sorrell will receive a $5,000 award in the adviser category. Sheforgen and Sorrell will accept their awards at the National Scholastic Press Association/Journalism Education Association Fall Convention in Philadelphia, Penn., on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2007.

“This year’s winners demonstrated a steadfast commitment to a free press when faced with pressure to abandon the First Amendment,” said Newseum Programs Director Rich Foster. “Students and teachers like Sheforgen and Sorrell convince us that journalism’s future is in good hands.”

In early January 2007, Sheforgen approached St. Francis Principal Paul Neubauer, to alert him to a photograph from a recent school play that he planned to publish in The Crier. The photograph, which showed the simulated destruction of an American flag, was to accompany an article about the school’s decision to remove the photo from the Performing Arts Center for fear of offending visitors.

In response to the news, Neubauer informed Sheforgen that he could not reprint the photo and halted the operation of the newspaper until the issue was resolved. The Crier staff sent the issue to press without the photo, fearing they might jeopardize the future of the newspaper if they did not comply with Neubauer’s wishes. In place of the original article and image, Sheforgen ran a story detailing the restrictions placed on The Crier by St. Francis administration.

Soon after, The Crier‘s story of censorship was picked up by local and national media, and Sheforgen became an impromptu spokesman for the First Amendment rights of high school students. From organizing editorial boards to drafting press releases, Sheforgen fought to protect The Crier’s long history of student-controlled content.

After months of lobbying and negotiations with the school board, Sheforgen’s efforts paid off. In May, the sub-committee of the board decided to recommend that The Crier retain its student-forum status.

Crier staff and the district administration also agreed upon a new process of editorial review that will allow for increased communication between students and administration.

Sheforgen is now a freshman at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.

In January 2007, after four years as the adviser of Woodlan High School’s student newspaper, The Tomahawk, journalism teacher Amy Sorrell found herself in conflict with Woodlan administration over a student-written column encouraging tolerance toward homosexuals.

Deeming the article unsuitable for younger students, Principal Ed Yoder said that Sorrell was ignoring her job responsibilities by exposing students to materials inappropriate for their age level and informed her that he would require prior review and approval of all future publications.

The school board declined to support Sorrell and The Tomahawk staff. Instead, the superintendent’s office named Yoder publisher of the school newspaper and gave him full authority over all student publications.

When Tomahawk staff protested the new policy by halting publication, Woodlan High School responded by placing Sorrell on administrative leave, and threatening to terminate her contract. Despite that threat, Sorrell continued to defend the rights of her students to publish their views.

By April, Sorrell had reached a settlement with the East Allen County (EAC) School District that required her to transfer to another high school in the region, write a formal apology for her actions and barred her from teaching journalism for three years.

Despite Woodlan’s efforts to quiet Sorrell’s fight for free speech, her commitment to First Amendment principles — and her students’ rights — was apparent to many.

Following her settlement with EAC schools, Sorrell accepted a teaching position with Keystone Schools of Fort Wayne, Ind., that began this fall. There, she is teaching English and yearbook and is working with Keystone to develop a journalism program and school newspaper.

The Courage in Student Journalism Awards are sponsored by the Newseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association.

The Newseum, opening in 2008 on historic Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., will blend five centuries of news history with up-to-the-second technology and hands-on interactive exhibits. The 250,000-square-foot museum will take visitors behind the scenes of news and instill an appreciation of the importance of a free press and the First Amendment.

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.