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2007 ASJMC Sass Award Presentation

Acceptance Speech delivered by Mark Goodman on August 10, 2007 in Washington, DC at the ASJMC Convention, Sass Award presentation.

by Mark Goodman, Executive Director
Student Press Law Center

Thank you, Tom, for those kind words. And my sincere thanks to the ASJMC for this much-appreciated recognition. But I have to tell you, when I heard the news, I was a bit perplexed: Judy Clabes, Jerry Ceppos, Hodding Carter … and me? Are there some hanging chads somewhere?

The beauty of doing something for 22 years (and being about the only person in the world who does it – that is running an organization that defends student press freedom) is that people assume that you're good at it. So thank you for concluding my longevity reflects accomplishment!

But seriously, I am very touched by this and just so honored to be in the company of the other fine recipients of this award. And it has very special meaning to be receiving an award with the name of Gerald Sass on it. What many of you in this room probably don’t know is that there was a time, back in the early 1980s, when the SPLC came this close to being no more because we had no money. Some dedicated board members and a handful of scholastic and collegiate press organizations emptied their pockets to give the organization enough to survive for a few more months. But that generosity would only have delayed the inevitable if it hadn’t been for Jerry Sass and the then-Gannett Foundation. For several years, the Gannett Foundation provided virtually the only foundation support the SPLC received and that was because Jerry Sass was our strongest advocate.

Today, thanks to a challenge grant from the Knight Foundation and the generosity of many individuals, corporations and foundations represented in this room, the SPLC has an endowment of almost $2.5 million. Can you believe that Jerry? (Remember when you told me, “diversify, diversify!”) Well I’ll tell you all, we would never have reached this level of security if it hadn’t been for this single man, who was way ahead of his time. Thank you, Jerry.
I've been very, very lucky to be associated with an organization these last two decades that I love so much. This award is really about the work of the Student Press Law Center, which I've had the honor to represent, and the Center's ongoing efforts to make the promise of the First Amendment a reality for young Americans.

For so many years, the high school and college journalists our organization serves didn't get much respect. Their battles to overcome censorship when they attempted to cover important but controversial issues or to get access to public records that revealed the less appealing side of academic institutions were often ignored by their professional counterparts or disregarded as "play journalism."

But with the help of groups like AEJMC and some of the schools represented in this room, that attitude has begun to change. More and more working journalists and concerned citizens have begun to ask the question that the SPLC has been raising since 1974. How can we expect the next generation of citizens to be defenders of free expression and a free press when their experiences in school teach them to disregard such values?

What do you say to that high school journalist who's been told she can't publish a story about what it's like to be a gay teen in America today? Or to the student who's editorial against gay marriage is banned because it might offend someone?

What lessons do college journalists learn when they see their adviser fired because the newspaper published a letter to the editor critical of a coach or because a journalism school director decided the paper didn't have enough coverage of "diversity" issues without explaining why his definition of “diverse” was the one that mattered or why the adviser should be held responsible for content decisions student editors make in the first place?

This reality (and I've just described a tiny but very real portion of our recent life at the SPLC) is warping the way young people perceive press freedom. I'm sure many of you heard about the Knight Foundation study reported over the last two years regarding high school students' knowledge of and attitudes towards the First Amendment. Only 51 percent of the more than 100,000 students surveyed believed that community newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of their stories. How can we expect anything different when for many, their experiences of press freedom are more reminiscent of life in pre-war Iraq than the U. S. of A.?

Over 2,500 student journalists and media advisers contact the SPLC for help each year, and about 60,000 visit our Web site each month. We try to teach them both their rights and responsibilities and how to stand up for the right of everyone to have their voice heard.

And I have to be honest: it is a real challenge to give young people, let alone their dedicated and put-upon advisers, hope given the legal landscape of the day. It’s easy to joke about the Supreme Court’s recent decision in what’s become known as the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case. Although the Court ultimately only concluded in Morse v. Frederick that high school student speech advocating illegal drug use during a school activity was punishable (in this case, a banner held up during the passing of the Olympic torch relay), when you read the Court’s multiple opinions you realize how fragile any First Amendment protection of student expression remains. Three justices, including the chief justice, took a position that would have allowed much greater restrictions of independent student speech even when there was no evidence of disruption. And one justice, Clarence Thomas, said he rejected the idea that the First Amendment protected student rights in school altogether and wanted to overrule the Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker decision.

It’s easy for some to dismiss decisions like this as just about “kids,” minors who aren’t deserving of rights even vaguely approaching those of adults. All they need to do is wait until college; then they’ll get a taste of what the First Amendment is all about.

Well don’t presume that’s the case. A growing number of judges and courts are almost as antagonistic to First Amendment protections for college students as they are to those in high school. Only a few short years ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Illinois ruled in the case Hosty v. Carter that a college dean requiring prior approval of a student newspaper was constitutionally permissible unless the students could prove the school had explicitly designated the publication a “public forum.”

And just last month, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York wrote one of the most appalling opinions I’ve ever seen. Lucky for us, it was in dissent. The case, Husain v. Springer, arose after a public college student newspaper editorially endorsed candidates for student government. When the opposing candidates got upset, the college president voided the election results. The student newspaper’s editors sued, saying that punitive action taken in response to their editorial had both the intention and affect of chilling the speech of the student newspaper and any future editorial endorsements. Two judges agreed with the students, but Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs said in dissent, “this is not a case that should occupy the mind of a person who has anything consequential to do. … This is a case about nothing.”

Would a judge say that same thing if the election at issue was one for city council and the publication a community newspaper? I can’t imagine it. But I would never have imagined this opinion about a college newspaper 20 years ago.

If history has taught us anything about the protection of our rights it is that all are connected. For every curtailment, every limitation of the free expression rights of young people, the First Amendment protections of other Americans, including the journalists you’re working so hard to produce, are that much more vulnerable.

And our shared values of editorial independence, commitment to the truth and serving as a watchdog of those in power will not survive if we produce a generation of First Amendment illiterates.

But there are things all of us can do to create a different future. Do you know if the student newspaper at your local high school is being censored? (Do you even know if your local high school has a student newspaper?) Has your university offered any programs for high school journalism teachers or offered advice or support to help them traverse the minefield that their position forces them into? Have you really supported your faculty or staff who engage in that effort? Have you called or written your state legislators, urging their support of a student free expression bill (which over 30 states have considered seven have now made into law)? Have you spoken out when a college president or student government officer threatens a campus student news organization based on what they’ve published or broadcast even when you don’t agree with the choices student editors have made? Have you, I’ll ask in a shameless plug, contributed to the work of the Student Press Law Center? (Despite our endowment, almost 80 percent of our annual budget comes from gifts from people just like you.)

Not just your dollars, but it’s your hearts and minds and voices that the student press needs so much.

I will tell you, in my 22 years at the Student Press Law Center, no censorship conflict has been more disappointing to me than what has happened at Kansas State University. An adviser, removed from his position based in significant part, according to the district court’s findings of fact, on a “content analysis” of the newspaper conducted by the director of the school of journalism. In contesting the student editors’ claim that this punitive action has an incredible and ongoing chilling effect on their work, the university argues it can never be a violation of student First Amendment rights to replace an adviser, even if that removal is based on the protected content decisions student editors have made.

Thanks to the spirited battle against the First Amendment Kansas State University has waged, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled just two weeks ago that once a student graduates, any First Amendment claim becomes moot. Now thanks to Kansas State University, every high school or college journalist in the six states of the 10th Circuit will be practically precluded from ever bringing a First Amendment claim to completion.
What an embarrassment to the good people who teach at that institution and the students who chose to attend it expecting so much more.

I have to ask, if we as journalism educators aren’t willing to defend student press freedom, who will?

But when the world of student journalism seems bleak and neither courts nor colleges are on our side, there are always reminders of how important it is that we keep fighting. And those usually come from the young people who inspire us every day.

One story I’ll never forget: in 2000, a high school newspaper editor from Queens, N.Y., named Matthew called the SPLC with a problem. His school principal had just censored a story about the sorry state of the school’s bathrooms. The students had reported that during many parts of the day there were only two bathrooms available to the entire 4,000-student population of the school because they couldn’t get teachers to monitor them. As a result of overuse, the open bathrooms were filthy and the lines would wind out the doors. Many students had no choice but to “hold it” until a next class break or the end of the day because there just wasn’t time to do their business. Using their excellent reporting skills, the students included as a source in their story a local public health official who commented on the health risks of not being able to empty your bladder when it was time to do so.

Matt’s call to us began a negotiation with his school principal that eventually allowed the story to run, but in an edited version. For example, the students had to take out a quote the principal had given them in an interview in which she said that if there wasn’t toilet paper in the bathrooms, students should bring it from home. (She never denied the accuracy of the quote; she just thought better of having it appear in print.)

Anyway, the story eventually ran, but the censorship battles continued and Matt struggled on, attempting to do his best as a journalist covering his school.

The following summer, I got a post card from Matt. He and his family had taken a family vacation here to Washington, D.C., visiting the tourist sites. But he said when he visited the national archives and saw the monuments and the Constitution, dim and under glass but very real, he realized something for the first time. It was about me, Matt wrote in his post card. The constitution is about me and people like me who deserve to have a voice.

And that’s what it’s all about.

As I said before, I may be the face and name most often associated with the SPLC, but it takes a dedicated, hard-working staff and board of directors to make our work happen. To our current staff members Mike Hiestand, Adam Goldstein, Abbie Gibbs, Sam Wilder, and Michael Beder, and an ever-changing cast of wonderful interns as well as to our hard-working, committed and passionate board of directors (current and former), this award is, plain and simple, because of them.

We've had so many great allies over the years. I have to thank the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which has been our suite-mate and cohort in First Amendment fun since 1983 (we have an EXTREMELY competitive office Bake Off every summer) and to all of the AEJMC and ASJMC leaders who have made student media issues a priority. And thanks to our funders, those foundations, corporations and a lot of individual teachers and students, journalists and attorneys. And special thanks to every lawyer who agreed, at our request, to provide pro bono representation to a student journalist in need.

And finally, I have to thank the people who helped me find my way to the SPLC and allowed me to continue there for the last 22 years. To my amazing parents, who from rural Missouri taught me to stand up for what was right (and who at one point in my childhood subscribed to eight different newspapers, leaving me to conclude that journalism was important – and they were a little bit nuts), to people who've been my mentors and role-models including two former board members whose passing this year has been a great sadness: Ball State journalism professor Louis Ingelhart, who defended student press freedom for over 50 years and David Adams, the Indiana University student media adviser whose joyous support for young people’s voices took him around the world to speak and teach.

And, to the family of friends who still claim me even though I’m almost never around and always seem to be traveling to talk to another group of students or teachers, and to my partner, who in 16 years hasn’t refused any of my many pro bono graphic design requests for the SPLC and both tolerates my frustration when the censors are out in force and gives me a loving home to return to.

And finally, a special thanks to my soon-to-be new family at Kent State University. As many of you know, I’m going to be leaving the SPLC this fall to become the first Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State. As sad as I’ll be to walk out the door of the SPLC for the last time as executive director, I’m thrilled to be joining a faculty so committed to the education of young journalists. For those of you who know Jeff Fruit and Jim Gaudino, or the amazing whirlwind of activity that is Candace Perkins Bowen, you know that I’m blessed to be entering the alternative universe of academia with such allies.

Twenty-six years ago, when I was a college journalist, I learned what the First Amendment could mean to a young reporter. Thank you to ASJMC for demonstrating your belief, through this award, that student journalists today deserve the same opportunity.


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