Student journalist wins First Amendment award for uncovering mishandled sexual misconduct cases

Photo by Diana Mitsu Klos 2019 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award honoree Grace Marion chats with Student Press Law Center Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand and student free speech icon Mary Beth Tinker. Hiestand and Tinker were Hefner award recipients in 2014.

WASHINGTON — A student journalist was honored with a Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment award Wednesday for a series of articles shedding light on how her high school has mishandled sexual misconduct cases, and for a long-running fight against censorship.

Grace Marion is the former editor-in-chief of The Playwickian at Neshaminy High School on Langhorne, Pa. and current student at The University of Mississippi, where she’s majoring in journalism.

She was honored May 15 with the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award for journalism, one of seven recipients in various categories. The award was established in 1979 to honor those who have made impactful contributions to protect and enhance First Amendment protections. Past journalism award recipients include Glenn Greenwald and John Perry Barlow.

In her opening remarks at a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Hefner award founder and chairman Christie Hefner said, “The press is not the enemy of the people. Ignorance is the enemy of the people.”

As a high school journalist, Marion found the school mishandled sexual assault and harassment complaints.

When sexual assault or harassment claims are made about employees of Neshaminy High School, Marion found, they are stored in the files of the student who makes the claim, not in the files of the employee. Those files are retained for only a few years after the student graduates.

She boycotted her graduation and published an article the same day. Playwickian articles were routinely censored and the budget was cut constantly.

Marion said that it was validating to receive the award, especially because her and the newspaper faced criticism not only from the administration but from other students.

“It means that what we’re doing is worth something,” Marion said.

She was nominated by Frank D. LoMonte, the former Student Press Law Center executive director who now heads the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, Gainesville. The SPLC has aided Marion and other Neshaminy High School journalists for many years.

In the nomination letter, LoMonte wrote: “It’s really rare to see a high school journalist doggedly pursue public records, but Grace is that really rare student, and you’d expect nothing less from her. She has done an invaluable public service by bringing to light what seems to be, at best, a grossly negligent practice of recordkeeping by her school that runs the risk of letting serial harassers escape punishment.”

Attorney Floyd Abrams, who received a Lifetime Achievement award at the ceremony, said seeing Marion and another student honoree, Christian Bales, a gender nonconforming person who receive the education award for delivering his valedictory speech after Holy Cross High School in Covington, Ky. tried to suppress it, “filled me with cheer, with joy, with hope.”

Since 1979, the Foundation has recognized 150-plus free speech advocates at their annual awards events. Previous honorees include high school students, lawyers, librarians, journalists and educators. A complete list of past award winners and judges can be found here.

Current staff on The Playwickian are still facing many of the issues Marion faced, she said.

“We’ve all been getting threats and harassed for years. Not just from students, but from teachers and local officials too,” Marion said.

Despite Marion’s efforts, the district has not changed any policies and has made a point to stand their ground, she said. The school board has told Marion repeatedly they don’t plan to investigate issues detailed in the articles.

But she’s not giving up — Marion plans to continue writing about the issue during summer break.

“My plan is to go back and write about it. Somebody has to do something,” Marion said.

SPLC reporter Cory Dawson can be reached at or at 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @Dawson_and_Co.
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