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Newseum presents 1st annual Courage in Student Journalism Awards

04.14.98

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ARLINGTON, Va. — To celebrate its first anniversary, the Newseum, the interactive museum of news, has established the Courage in Student Journalism Awards. The awards will be presented annually to school officials and student journalists. Student winners will be journalists who have shown determination, despite difficulty and resistance, in exercising their First Amendment press rights. School administrators will be selected on the basis of demonstrated support, under difficult circumstances, for the First Amendment press rights of their schools' student media.

This year's winners are Phillip F. Gainous, principal of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., and Dan Vagasky, former editor in chief of the Bulldog Express at Otsego (Mich.) Middle School.

The awards will be presented at a luncheon at the Newseum on April 14. Vagasky, now a freshman at Otsego High School, will receive a $5,000 check; Gainous will be given a $5,000 check to be used to support journalism at his high school.

The Newseum, which opened on April 18, 1997, is funded by The Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan, international foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people. As The Freedom Forum's largest public outreach program, the Newseum seeks to educate its visitors about the importance of First Amendment rights in a free society.

"This is a great birthday gift to ourselves and to scholastic journalism," said Joe Urschel, executive director and senior vice president of the Newseum. "Nothing could be more appropriate, given our allegiance to the First Amendment, than to recognize the strength of character these individuals demonstrated in standing up for student press rights."

The First Amendment rights of student journalists frequently come under attack. More than 500 student journalists and advisers contact the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) in Arlington, Va., each year for legal help with censorship problems. Since 1974, the SPLC has been the only national organization devoted exclusively to providing free legal assistance to high school and college journalists. According to Mark Goodman, executive director of the SPLC, the annual number of requests for assistance has increased 150 percent in the last 10 years.

Gainous received the Courage in Student Journalism Award for publicly backing his students in protesting the school superintendent's refusal to air "Shades of Grey," a student-produced television program that included a panel discussion of same-sex marriage. At a press conference organized by the student journalists Gainous said, "These students have taught me, really, how to go through an adverse situation with dignity and style I fully support them in this." The Montgomery County School Board sided with Gainous and the students, and the show was broadcast on the county cable system's education channel in May 1997.

The controversy continues as students challenge the implementation of new school regulations, drafted after the "Shades of Grey" incident, that establish a lower threshold for censorship than previous county policy. Because of the student protests, the school board is seeking input on the policy's wording from the Society of Professional Journalists and journalism advisers in the Montgomery County School System.

Vagasky's Courage in Student Journalism Award resulted from his stand against censorship of the middle school paper he edited as an eighth grader. In February 1997, Vagasky sought to publish a story about a shoplifting incident on a school field trip. The story, which included arrest record information from the county sheriff's department, did not mention the student shoplifter's name.

School officials refused to allow Vagasky to publish the story, although they acknowledged that the story was accurate. Otsego School Superintendent James Leyndyke said in an interview with the Kalamazoo Gazette, the local newspaper that covered the censorship story, that his opposition to the story did not "have anything to do with how well the story was written," but rather that it reflected poorly on the school district. "I view any piece of information that comes out of the schools as our opportunity to put our best foot forward. We would not pay ... to show what we do poorly."

As a result of the dispute, the district shut down the Bulldog Express, and the newspaper's adviser, Diana Stamfler, was forced to take a job elsewhere after her responsibilities as adviser were taken away and her hours as a school district employee were reduced.

Vagasky eventually filed suit in federal court. An out-of-court settlement awaiting school board signature would mandate that no story could be rejected simply because it might portray the school district in a negative light.

For more information about the award presentation ceremony or to schedule an interview with the award winners or a Newseum spokesperson call Ann Rauscher at 703/284-3713.

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