Profiles in courage

Each year, in an effort to recognize some of those efforts, the SPLC andthe National Scholastic Press Association give out the Courage in StudentJournalism Award, which is endowed by the Kent State University Center forScholastic Journalism. This year’s winners, Henry Rome and Seth Zweiflerin the student category and Barb Thill in the educator category, were saluted asoutstanding examples of bravery and dedication in standing up for freedom of thestudent press. 

Barb Thill — Adviser chilled

This year, the educator’sCourage in Student Journalism Award was given to Barb Thill, former adviser toThe Statesman, the student newspaper at Stevenson High School inLincolnshire, Ill., for her efforts promoting journalism despite intimidationand chilling action from the school’s administration.

The Statesman — and Thill specifically — came under firein January 2009 after publishing a package of stories about students”hooking up.” The stories dealt with the prevalence of casualrelationships among teens and some of the consequences, as well as cautionaryquotes from health professionals.

Thill said the publication immediately caused an “uproar” atthe school as a result of a number of calls to school administrators from alocal conservative organization.

After the community response, the paper was immediately put under priorreview by a number of administrators, each with authority to exercise priorrestraint.

Thill said she “was told the journalism program would bechanged,” as a response to the story and the feedback from the community.She said she was also told the journalism classes, which she had exclusivelytaught, would be split up among three separate teachers.

“After 23 years of experience, I was down to just one section ofThe Statesman,” Thill said. “It seemed like I was expected totrain my replacements.”

When the prior review policy was implemented, and after pressure she feltfrom the principal and other administrators that chilled free speech at theschool, Thill decided it was in her best interest to resign as adviser to TheStatesman and instead teach English.

The paper and journalism classes were split into two sections and leftunder the control of two teachers without Thill’s level of experience inthe field.

Thill said the divided staff caused some of the students to feeldiscouraged and that there was nobody on their side fighting for them.

“When I stopped teaching the class, nine or 10 kids dropped theclass,” she said. “Some of them said they felt hopeless. [Thestudents] were so worried and so cautious after this. Some of them droppedstories they were planning on covering — there was pressure not to pursuestories.”

One of the challenges for many schools like Stevenson High School, Thillsaid, is helping administrators understand the value of free speech.

“I don’t know that many administrators really know what thestudent press is all about,” she said.

Above all, Thill feels the student journalists who are still working andwriting under a school administration that chills speech are the individualsdeserving recognition.

“I think the kids are the ones who deserve this award,” Thillsaid. “The students were traumatized to see their work disparaged on thefront page of the [local paper]. But I give the credit to the kids who aretrying to do real journalism.”

Thill received her award to a standing ovation at the national high schooljournalism convention awards ceremony on Nov. 14 in Washington, D.C. Shecontinues to teach at Stevenson High in the English Department.

Henry Rome and Seth Zweifler — Prior review no more

Henry Rome andSeth Zweifler fought as advocates for press freedom after administrators atConestoga High School, near Philadelphia, attempted to implement a policy ofmandatory prior review. Unhappy with the limitations of the policy, Rome andZweifler spent months in meetings and gaining support for their cause to relaxthe restrictive elements of the new policy.

“It was upsetting and angering, what they were trying to do,”Rome said.

The policy came in the wake of a number of hard-hitting stories publishedin The Spoke. In the year leading up to the attempted policy change,The Spoke published stories on student gambling, teen pregnancy, and lifeas an LGBT high school student.

Weeks before the district superintendent proposed tightening theschool’s policy on student publications, The Spoke published astory, “Obligation to Report,” which was an investigation of theschool district’s policies regarding employees with criminal backgrounds.The story focused on a janitor with a criminal background whose record wentundetected by the school district until he was arrested in connection with astring of bank robberies.

The story got attention and helped generate support for state legislationfor more stringent criminal background checks for school employees. Despite whatRome and Zweifler considered a positive response, weeks after publicationadministrators attempted to implement the prior mandatory review policy for thepaper.

Rome and Zweifler said they believed the change in the policy was relatedto the stories.

“The timing was very suspect to us,” said Zweifler, noweditor-in-chief of The Spoke.

Rome, who is now a student at Princeton University and was primary authorof the “Obligation to Report” story, said the proposed policy”came out of the blue.”

Zweifler and Rome were told by district officials that the policy was beinglooked at because it was up for a periodic review. The last time the policy hadbeen reviewed by Tredyffrin/Easttown School District officials was 1994.

The school’s existing policy was 86 words long, Zweifler said. Thenew proposed policy was seven pages long and would have allowed officials tocensor anything that “represented the school or community in a badlight.”

Rome and Zweifler both said at that point it was hard not to actimmediately on emotions of outrage and anger.

“It would have been very easy to act on emotions,” Zweiflersaid. “When we saw what they were trying to do, we had some pretty strongemotions. It helped to keep a cool, level head and remainrespectful.”

He said the students worked to ensure they were taking the right steps tobegin productive dialogue about the situation. They contacted the Student PressLaw Center and the Pennsylvania School Press Association to develop a strategyto fight the new policy.

“We took time to step back and decided on a three-prongedstrategy,” Zweifler said.

First, the students decided to reach out to the community and thereadership of the paper. Second, they reached out to local media to enlist thehelp of others concerned with First Amendment freedoms. And finally, thestudents engaged school board members so they would make it a priority.

“We really saw that students can effect change with their schoolboard and with their superiors,” Zweifler said. Rome said the studentswere lucky in some of the help they received.

“The stars really aligned for us, because one of the school boardcandidates made it part of their platform [to promote student pressfreedom],” he said.

As part of the process of bringing about change in the policy, the studentssaid they had to attend a number of meetings with district officials.

“One of the board members asked; ‘Do you think there are goodstudent papers without prior review?’ and I immediately thought ofexamples of great papers in California and Kansas (both states that have studentfree expression laws) without it,” Rome said.

“They show that if you give students freedom they’re entitledto, they’re not going to just go out and break the law.”

After numerous revisions and even more meetings, the school board and thestudents were able to agree on a policy in September 2009 that would protect theinterests of the district and of the students.

“We’re very comfortable with the new policy,” Zweiflersaid. “It’s in line with the law and in line with the Tinkerstandard.”

Tinker is the Supreme Court’s landmark 1969 ruling recognizingbroad free-speech protections for students at public institutions.

The policy, as it stands now, allows some oversight by thepublication’s advisers, but does not give the administration a hand in theediting process of the paper.

As part of their strategy to reach out to the community, Zweifler and Romeset up a Web site,

“We set up the Web site with two goals in mind,” Rome said.”First, we wanted to use it to keep a watch on what’s going on atThe Spoke. And second, we wanted it to be a resource for people facingcensorship.”Zweifler said the Web site helped people get involvedonline to offer their support.

“I think this really shows students that it’s possible –that you can get what’s right,” he said.

If students find themselves facing censorship, Zweifler said it isimportant to always adopt a levelheaded approach to the situation.

“Make sure you talk with people, not over them,” he said.”Sometimes you have to educate [administrators about student rights].Speak with them. Educate yourself and learn about legal standards and yourrights.”

Even thought parts of the process were challenging and upsetting, Rome saidthe students were motivated because they were fighting for a good cause.

“We were doing it for future students,” Rome said.”Another issue here was our role in the community — that’swhat kept us going.”

Rome and Zweifler both said they were humbled to receive the award, andthat they are grateful for the involvement of all of the organizations thathelped them.

“We’ve had such tremendous support from the community,”Rome said. “We’ve been working with the SPLC since the gamblingstory. They helped us so we could jump right in — they’ve been afantastic resource.”Rome’s experiences at his newspaper taughthim lessons not usually learned in the classroom.

“It’s all about the opportunities,” he said.”Looking back, it’s not about the AP stuff you learn, but theexperiences you get. You learn things you can’t learn anywhereelse.”

The award was presented to Rome and Zweifler on Nov. 14 at the JournalismEducation Association/NSPA awards ceremony, attended by approximately 6,200students, in Washington, D.C.

Along with the Courage in Student Journalism Award, Rome, Zweifler andThe Spoke won a number of other awards.