Two high school journalists who successfully opposed aretaliatory censorship policy and an Illinois newspaper adviser who boldlychoose to resign her post rather than work at a censored newspaper are therecipients of the annual Courage in Student Journalism Award.
The student winners are Seth Zweifler and Henry Rome,the current and immediate past editors-in-chief of Pennsylvania’sConestoga High School newspaper, The Spoke. The faculty/administrationwinner is Barb Thill of Illinois’ Stevenson High School, an Englishteacher and former adviser of the school’s Statesman.
The awards, which will be presented at the NationalHigh School Journalism Convention on Nov. 14 in Washington, D.C., are given eachyear to student journalists and school officials who have demonstratedoutstanding support for the free press rights of students.
The presenting sponsor is the Center for ScholasticJournalism, a program of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication atKent State University. The award is co-sponsored by the Student Press Law Centerand the National Scholastic Press Association.
Frank D. LoMonte, an attorney and the ExecutiveDirector of the SPLC, said Zweifler and Rome earned the honor because oftheir professional-caliber work and their savvy diplomatic efforts to overcome aproposed censorship policy.”These winners exemplify the sad fact of lifethat provocative, hard-hitting student journalism is often celebrated withretaliation,” LoMonte said. “Exemplary journalistic work was met with acrackdown by administrators who believed that the best way to deal withunpleasant disclosures about their school systems was to stop thedisclosures.”
At Conestoga High School, administrators proposedmandatory prior review of all student publications after The Spokepublished Rome’s news story, “Obligation to Report,” whichdetailed how a janitor at the local middle school was able to remain on the jobdespite multiple run-ins with the law, ending with his arrest on bank robberycharges. The story provided ammunition for a state legislative push to tightencriminal background check requirements for schoolemployees.
Two weeks after the story was published in June 2009,the district school board announced plans for the new prior-review requirement,along with a new job description requiring the publications adviser remove anycontent deemed “offensive.” Armed with research and facts, Zweiflerand Rome mounted a careful and respectful campaign to persuade the board to dropthe most punitive parts of the proposed policy.
Rome, who now attends Princeton University, said theaward “highlights the fact that student journalism is so valuable in ademocratic society and its protection is therefore extremely important. Studentjournalists deserve to be able to spend months upon months investigating storiesand controversial issues. Student journalists deserve the opportunity to servetheir school and, indeed, their democracy.”
Zweifler said he “couldn’t be more humbledto be recognized with this honor. But this award isn’t just about us.It’s about the thousands of student journalists across the country whosevoices are silenced because their school administration views the studentnewspaper as a public relations tool rather than a public service. It’sabout informing people of the ever-growing problem of prior review, and how anyform of censorship is a travesty for scholastic journalismprograms.”
Thill was one of the most respected journalismeducators in America when her students came under fire after theStatesman published a January 2009 package of news stories about theprevalence of casual “hooking up” relations among teens, much of italcohol-fueled. The news stories were balanced with cautionary quotes from aschool counselor and a local psychologist about the lasting damage that couldresult from such behavior. The package promptedthe school’s principal and school board to impose a mandatory prior reviewpolicy, giving the ultimate editorial decisions to school employees and not thestudent journalists. Faced with a diminished program and the chill ofintimidation, Thill chose to resign as journalism adviser at the end of the 2009school year.
“When (students) decide to publish controversialcontent, they do so because they believe their readership community needs to beaware of the information,” Thill said. “Administrators who censorsuch content or intimidate students from publishing such content in effect blockstudent readers from receiving information and thereby discussing and using thatinformation.”
Zweifler, Rome and Thill will receive the Courage inStudent Journalism Award at the National Scholastic Press Association/JournalismEducation Association National Convention in Washington, D.C. The ceremony willbe held at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel on Nov. 14 at 3:30 p.m. before anaudience of thousands of high school journalists and advisers. The studentwinners will share a $1,000 prize and the adviser winner will receive $1,000 tosupport student journalists at her school.
Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has beendevoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights andresponsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the studentnews media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Centerprovides free information and educational materials for student journalists andtheir teachers on a wide variety of legal topics on its website atwww.splc.org.
FOR IMMEDIATERELEASE Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, ExecutiveDirector 703.807.1904,firstname.lastname@example.org