The Student Press Law Center is proud to honor the Pearl Post staff at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School in Los Angeles and former Nebraska student journalist Marcus Pennell as co-winners of the 2023 High School Courage in Student Journalism Award.
Each stood up to administrative censorship and is recognized for their months-long battles for student press freedom. The student journalists at the Post and Pennell both brought national attention to their censorship cases, shining light on the importance of scholastic journalism.
SPLC and the National Scholastic Press Association announced the awards on Nov. 4 at the Fall National High School Journalism Convention in Boston, Massachusetts. The Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University sponsors the $1,000 prize for the award, which is given annually to student journalists who have demonstrated exceptional determination and support for student press freedom, despite resistance or difficult circumstances.
“These students persevered with courage in their fight against censorship to the benefit of student journalists everywhere,” SPLC Executive Director Gary Green said. “The Pearl Post student journalists spent a year defending their rights and their adviser, who was caught in the crosshairs, even with California’s Education Code on their side. Marcus’ case further illustrates why Nebraska needs a New Voices law that clearly spells out student journalists’ rights. Together, these cases illustrate why student press freedom is so important, but also how much work we have ahead to advance and protect it.”
The Pearl Post and reporters Valeria Luquin, Nathalie Miranda, Delilah Brumer and Gabrielle Lashley and adviser Adriana Chavira (Daniel Pearl Magnet High School)
With California’s New Voices law as their shield, the Pearl Post team successfully resisted administrators’ efforts for almost a year to censor their reporting on COVID-19 and to retaliate against their adviser, Adriana Chavira.
The ordeal began when the school librarian requested that she be removed from a Nov. 8, 2021, Post story about the impact of their school district’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate on teachers. The story noted that the librarian did not return to work after the mandate went into effect.
The students declined to remove the information, citing the newsworthiness — the library remained closed — and that it was already well known in the school community. Administrators then demanded Chavira make the change to the story, but she refused, standing by her students’ editorial decision and upholding Section 48907 of California’s Education Code, which prevents school employees from censoring content in student media.
For refusing to comply with their illegal order to censor her students, officials informed Chavira she would be suspended for three days without pay and have a disciplinary notice placed in her personnel file.
With that threat of discipline hanging for months, the student journalists refused to back down. They defended their reporting and their adviser, publishing news stories shedding light on the censorship threats, writing editorials calling out the administration’s wrongful behavior, sharing their experiences with local and national media and bringing press freedom advocates across the country to their side.
Luquin, Miranda, Brumer and Lashley’s persistence — and Chavira’s bravery in fighting the discipline — ultimately led the district to rescind the disciplinary proceedings against Chavira in September 2022. It was a full victory, nearly a year after the initial story was published.
“Although this process was stressful, it solidified in our minds the importance of our work and of the rights of student journalists,” the students said in a joint statement. “Facing the exhaustion and uncertainty of censorship, all while still being regular students, took a tremendous toll. However, we didn’t have to go through it all alone. We are extremely thankful for everyone who supported us in resisting censorship, including our fabulous Pearl Post staff, the Student Press Law Center and our fearless adviser, Ms. Chavira.”
Since graduating, Luquin, Miranda, Brumer and Lashley continue to have an impact on student journalism, speaking at local and national events about student press freedom and providing support and advice for current high school student journalists facing censorship threats.
“We are proud and grateful to receive this honor, both as young journalists and as former
students of Daniel Pearl Magnet High School, the only journalism magnet in the Los Angeles
Unified School District,” the students said. “We never expected our censorship fight to get the national attention that it did, and we are honored to have received an outpour of support from students, professional journalists and teachers. After experiencing the difficulties faced by student journalists across the country firsthand, we applaud the work of those fighting for student press freedom.”
Marcus Pennell (Viking Saga, Northwest High School)
Pennell is recognized for his year-long effort to protect student press freedom and the ability to cover diverse subjects, including bringing a rare lawsuit against his school district that serves as a warning to administrators not to discriminate against student media.
Officials at Northwest High School in Grand Island, Nebraska, directed the Viking Saga staff in April 2022 to only publish students’ legal names — as shown on birth certificates — in bylines and articles. This meant that Pennell, who is a transgender male, would be deadnamed in his own byline and some student sources could not go by their preferred names.
Despite that order, Pennell and the Saga staff refused to back down from representing the LGBTQ+ student community in the newspaper, running three Pride-related stories in their June issue.
After deeming the LGBTQ+ content “inappropriate,” the administration shut down the Saga and canceled Northwest’s journalism class. The newspaper’s adviser, Kristen Gilliand, also announced she would not return.
Pennell continued advocating for the Saga despite graduating that spring, helping bring national and international coverage as he spoke out against the censorship, including in the Washington Post and Teen Vogue.
In March, the ACLU of Nebraska filed a federal lawsuit against the school district on behalf of Pennell and the Nebraska High School Press Association, alleging that school officials’ actions against the Saga violated Pennell’s and NHSPA’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The court dismissed the case in October because Pennell had graduated just days before officials shut down the newspaper, but the judge cautioned that “school administrators would be wise to remember that policies and decisions to restrict speech in student newspapers . . . may run afoul of the First Amendment if they ‘reflect an effort to suppress expression merely because the public officials oppose a speaker’s view.””
That warning lays out a legal path for current student journalists who have been discriminated against by school administrators, and it shines a light on the need for New Voices legislation in Nebraska. The pressure Pennell put on the district also prompted the administration to reinstate Northwest’s journalism class and a digital-only version of the Viking Saga.
“I’ve worked very hard to bring attention to the censorship my school faced and the importance of covering diverse subjects in student publications,” Pennell said. “I am so thankful to have been able to advocate for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as well as receive this honor from SPLC.”
About the award
The Courage in Student Journalism Award recognizes student journalists who have demonstrated exceptional determination and support for student press freedom, despite resistance or difficult circumstances. The award comes with a $1,000 prize, sponsored by the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University. It is presented annually by SPLC and the National Scholastic Press Association at the fall National High School Journalism Convention.
This year’s recipients were selected by an advisory committee of journalists and journalism educators, including Ellen Austin, retired high school journalism teacher and adjunct faculty at Kent State’s School of Media and Journalism; Steven Holmes, former executive director of standards and practices at CNN and SPLC board member; and Gary Green, SPLC executive director.
The Student Press Law Center (splc.org, @splc) is an independent, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) nonprofit working at the intersection of education, journalism and the law to promote, support and defend the rights of student journalists and their advisers at the high school and college levels. Based in Washington, D.C., the Student Press Law Center provides information, training and legal assistance at no charge to student journalists and the educators who work with them.