Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director
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The staff of The Daily Helmsman at the University of Memphis, and Editor-in-Chief Chelsea Boozer, who successfully fought a retaliatory budget cut while enduring a campaign of harassment by campus police, are the 2012 winners of the College Press Freedom Award.
The annual award is sponsored by the Student Press Law Center and the Associated Collegiate Press to honor an individual or group that has demonstrated courage in advancing free-press rights for college journalists. The award will be presented Nov. 3 at the National College Media Convention in Chicago, organized by the ACP and by the College Media Association.
The award is underwritten by a grant from the Louisiana State University Manship School of Communications and given in memory of “The Reveille Seven,” a group of LSU student journalists who, in 1934, were expelled under political pressure – and later vindicated – for publishing criticism of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long.
“I’m thankful that we can be recognized for standing up for the First Amendment because we’ve been involved ruthlessly in trying to protect the paper’s right to free speech and ensure the University of Memphis keeps a free press on campus,” said Boozer, a Memphis senior.
Boozer and her staff were nominated for the award by adviser Candace Justice. Justice explained that hostility toward Boozer and the Helmsman began escalating in 2010, when Boozer wrote a three-part series on questionable spending by the Student Government Association, which earned her an Investigative Reporters and Editors national award. Following the series, Boozer was berated by the SGA president at a Student Senate meeting that resulted in a standing ovation by the audience that included a college administrator. She was later warned by an administrator that writing such stories would cause the university to have a negative impression of her.
This spring, Boozer took on the university’s legal counsel over their refusal to release a complete police report documenting a 2011 campus rape, even though federal law specifically says law enforcement records are not confidential. The SPLC wrote a letter on behalf of the Helmsman and the entire rape report was released. Shortly thereafter, Boozer learned of another campus rape, and wrote an open letter in the Helmsman criticizing the university police director for not notifying students with a text or e-mail.
The day the column was published, University of Memphis Police Services filed two reports accusing Boozer of criminal misconduct. The charges were deemed unfounded, but the university has taken no action against those who filed the reports.
In May, a student activity fee committee cut the Helmsman’s funding by 33 percent for this school year, during a meeting where members openly criticized the newspaper’s coverage decisions. Earlier this month, the school’s president announced the budget will be restored after an investigation found the cut was potentially content-motivated.
Justice concluded in her nomination of Boozer: “When members of the committee tried to strong-arm Chelsea about content of the newspaper, she took a courageous stand in support of college press freedom.”
Boozer said credit should be shared with many, including Justice and the Helmsman staff, leading Helmsman alumnus Jim Willis, volunteer attorney Brian Faughnan, SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte, and members of the journalism faculty and staff who spoke out on the controversy – some of whom are not tenured.
“I have to say standing up for ourselves, our readers and free speech would have been a lot tougher without help from Frank LoMonte from SPLC. He’s written letters to our university, assisted me in finding a lawyer when I was told university officials considered arresting me based on false police reports filed by a university police officer, and he was always available to help when I had legal or reporting questions,” she wrote in an e-mail.
“We had nominees this year who produced exemplary news reporting, and we had nominees who faced down adversity from schools that tried to intimidate them, but we’ve rarely seen such a ‘total package’ of exceptional public-service reporting that is met with such forceful retaliation,” LoMonte said. “Chelsea Boozer and her staff exemplify everything that college journalism should be. They hold their school accountable, they push against obstruction to get at the truth, and they don’t back down even in the face of some pretty scary threats.”
“The best part of this story is the ending: The university has recognized that its current funding method, which makes the Helmsman beg for its budget every year in front of the Student Government that it covers, is unworkable and must be replaced with something better,” LoMonte said. “I know that Chelsea is going to hold them to that commitment to make something positive come out of this terrible mistreatment of the newspaper, and we will too.”
In addition to the national award from IRE, Boozer’s work has been recognized twice by the Hearst Foundation collegiate writing competition. She has won writing awards from the Southeastern Journalism Conference, which named her College Journalist of the Year for 2011.
The College Press Freedom Award carries a $500 cash prize made possible by the sponsorship from LSU’s Manship School. A list of past winners is available at: http://www.splc.org/aboutus/csjaward.asp.