Colorado student editors win Courage Award

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEContact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

Two student journalists who overcame their high school’sattempt to shutter the student newspaper after the students sought to publish anews story about a classmate’s death are the recipients of the 2011 Courage inStudent Journalism Award.

The award recipients are Lori Shafer and Jaclyn Gutierrez,editors of The Overland Scout atOverland High School in Aurora, Colo. The awards, which will be presented atthe National High School Journalism Convention, Nov. 17-20 in Minneapolis, aregiven each year to student journalists and school officials who havedemonstrated exceptional fortitude in defending freedom of the press.

The Courage award is co-sponsored by the Student Press LawCenter, the National Scholastic Press Association, and the Center forScholastic Journalism at Kent State University, which underwrites a $500 cashprize plus travel expenses for the winners.

“There are, unfortunately, many examples of students doing excellentjournalistic work and suffering retaliation for it. But Lori and Jaclyn showedespecially remarkable fortitude in standing up against a campaign of publicdisinformation from the highest levels of their own school district. They neverwavered in the knowledge that they were right, and they took ownership of theirrights and asserted them with maturity, skill and success. They exemplifycourage in student journalism,” said Frank D. LoMonte, executive director ofthe Student Press Law Center.

The conflict occurred when Principal Leon Lundie objected toa news story about the death of an Overland High School sophomore, LeibertPhillips. A death certificate obtained by the student journalists attributedPhillips’ death to complications from a leg fracture he sustained in awrestling meet – a fact that Lundie tried to dissuade the students fromreporting.

After the students persisted in pursuing the story, Lundietold adviser Laura Sudik that she was being removed from advising duties andthat the newspaper would be abolished effective in the 2011-12 school year.

The students got help from the Student Press Law Center,which – in tandem with the Colorado High School Press Association and the ACLUof Colorado – helped the students with legal research and publicity. Whenschool officials were convinced that retaliation against public school studentsfor publishing lawful editorial content is specifically prohibited by Coloradolaw and by the First Amendment, the punishment was reversed – the newspaper wasrestored, without mandatory prior administrative review, and Sudik wasreinstated as adviser.

Shafer said she hopes no one will ever have to go throughwhat they did, but she has no regrets. “We stood up for what we knew was rightand protected our staff and hopefully in some way helped many other high schooljournalists. I know it made me a stronger person and helped me to realize howimportant newspaper really is to me. I got a glimpse of what real journalistshave to go through: people trying everything they can to keep them fromprinting a story that is important to be told,” she said.

Gutierrez credits the SPLC for its support and legalassistance. “They were always very encouraging and would tell us we were in theright and everything would turn out right. It was always so hard walking downthe hallways when you’re in a legal battle with the people there, but the SPLChelped a lot with how to deal with them and if anything were to happen how todeal with it.”

Mark Goodman, Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at KentState University’s Center for Scholastic Journalism, said of the winners, “Thesestudents’ actions reflect a commitment to the truth that is inspiring. Theuntimely death of a high school athlete is the kind of story that no journalistever hopes to confront. But thesestudents showed how well such a story can be told when scholastic journalists aregiven the freedom to simply report the facts.”

“Jaclyn and Lori embody the kind of courage this awardrecognizes,” said Logan Aimone, executive director of the National ScholasticPress Association. “Relevant and responsible journalism is easy to defend.Despite exceptional obstacles placed in the way of telling the story, the staffof the Scout stood strong, andstudent journalists everywhere can be proud.”

Colorado is one of seven states that provide specialstatutory protection for high school journalists. According to the ColoradoStudent Free Expression Law, student publications can be restricted only ifthey contain obscene or defamatory material, or if they promote unlawful acts,the disruption of school, or a violation of privacy rights.

“When the skeptics ask why we need student free-press laws,Overland High School is the answer. Free-press laws do not lead to lawsuits –they prevent them. Colorado’s law made it so clear that what the school waspreparing to do was illegal that everything quickly resolved itself just as itshould have, with no harm done to the students, the adviser, or the journalismprogram,” LoMonte said.

Schafer and Gutierrez will receive the Courage in StudentJournalism Award at the National Scholastic Press Association/JournalismEducation Association National Convention in Minneapolis before an audience ofthousands of high school journalists and advisers.

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