Tuesday, April 20, 2010

At national convention, Rome calls censorship "a challenge to democracy"; click for video of the speech

In an address to thousands of student journalists in Portland, Ore., former Spoke Editor in Chief Henry Rome said that administrative censorship not only poses a direct threat to journalism but a direct threat to the ideals that define America.

“When a school tries to supersede the Constitution with district policy, I don’t see it as a challenge to that newspaper,” Rome said. “I see it as a challenge to democracy itself.”

Rome, who was named the National Student Journalist of the Year in 2009, spoke to over 2,500 student journalists and advisers at the opening ceremony of the spring National High School Journalism Convention on April 15. The Journalism Education Association and National Scholastic Press Association co-hosted the convention.

Rome drew on his experiences with The Spoke’s investigation into a district custodian accused of bank robbery. The article, “Obligation to Report,” was awarded the National News Story of the Year for 2009 and the Brasler Award for best overall high school article. The article also provided important context for a statewide legislative push to change school background check procedures.

He then discussed last summer’s censorship proposal by the school district, and why he and fellow editors fought back.


Speech by Henry Rome, National Student Journalist of the Year

April 15, 2010 - Opening Ceremony

JEA/NSPA Spring National High School Journalism Convention

Portland, Oregon


Introduction by Jack Kennedy, President, Journalism Education Association

It is my distinct pleasure to introduce to you Henry Rome, graduate of Conestoga High School in Berwyn, Pennsylvania.

He is one of the most honored high school journalists in history, I can safely say this. Listen to this: When he was a junior, he wrote the News Story of the Year from the NSPA/ASNE contest. When he was a senior, he wrote the News Story of the Year again. He also was part of the Multimedia Story of the Year and he won the Courage in Student Journalism Award.

He is now finishing his freshman year at Princeton University and is also finishing his year as reigning National High School Journalist of the Year.

Ladies and Gentlemen, get up on your feet and say welcome to Henry Rome!


Henry Rome

After that introduction, I’m interested to hear what I have to say.

Thank you to the Journalism Education Association for this tremendous and humbling honor. To NSPA and JEA for what is going to be a fantastic convention week. Thank you to Frank LoMonte and the Student Press Law Center, along with the Pennsylvania School Press Association, for their support. Thank you to The Spoke, the newspaper I called home for four great years. We have two of our editors here tonight, Meghan Morris and Liz Bravacos. And thank you to our two stellar advisers, Susan Houseman and Cyndi Hyatt, for their incredible dedication and support of the paper. Lastly, thanks to my parents and little brother, for putting up with the late production nights and the dinnertime conversations about anonymous sources and prior review.

When I got the call a year ago that I was named journalist of the year, I was knee deep in police reports after an elementary school custodian in our district was taken out of school in handcuffs. The custodian was charged with allegedly robbing two local banks.

The initial police statement was interesting, but I wanted to know more. So I headed to court. That obviously got some looks at school — I was a little too cheerful when I told my friends I was heading to the courthouse. And then it was interesting when I saw one of my classmates at court. Let me tell you, they weren’t there because they wanted to be.

What I found in court papers was troubling — other participants in the robbery said that the custodian was the mastermind, according to the police. And after one of the robberies one evening, the participants allegedly returned to that elementary school to split up the money. Mind you, there were children in the school. I asked the head investigator whether the suspects brought their guns into the school. His response was: well, we’re not sure, but do you think they left the guns in the car?

The events were shocking, but this new information raised more questions. How did a custodian, who passed his background check on initial hiring, end up being charged with bank robbery? My extensive knowledge of criminology, based off the teachings of Horatio Kaine of CSI, told me that it isn’t too likely that a person with a clean record ends up allegedly robbing banks.

The custodian’s record, as it turned out, was far from spotless: He had been arrested on felony aggravated assault charges while he worked for the district. As he was sitting in jail, he ran into an issue as the work week came around. His solution? He took vacation days while he was in jail. Apparently the district had no idea of the charges.

In the end, I found a broken statewide system of crime reporting that legislators demanded be changed. All this came about because I had a feeling, a gut feeling that something wasn’t right. That the original press release did not tell the whole story. And it did not.

The article came out the day before I graduated, and it got a very positive reaction, and a very concerned one too. People were just stunned that this could have happened.

The district wasn’t as thrilled. Only a few weeks after the article came out, the district unveiled a plan to censor the paper. The new proposal took a 15-year-old policy of 86 words and turned it into seven pages of new rules and regulations.

The district planned a comprehensive policy of censorship of all student publications if they reported on something that did not reflect favorably upon the school — favorably, that’s their word. But we knew this proposal not only would censor the paper. It would mean The Spoke would cease to be a newspaper.

It was interesting that the proposal came in 2009, because that year was such a remarkable time in the history of scholastic press rights. For one, the Student Press Law Center, whose lawyers are the best in the country on student press issues, celebrated its 35th anniversary. But 2009 was also the 35th anniversary of a lesser known event — the release of the report that led to the creation of the SPLC. The landmark study was called “Captive Voices: High School Journalism in America.” It was written by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Jack Nelson, who passed away this October. As the title implies, the report discussed administrative censorship that led to what he called quote “an unquestioning attitude among students, an unhealthy acquiescence in pronouncements of school authorities no matter how unfair or oppressive they may be.”

We knew we had to fight back, lest our paper become another captive voice. So, along with fellow editors Seth Zweifler and Jonathan Yu, we set up an organization called “Friends of The Spoke.” We were aiming for originality in the name. We also set up a Web site, which is still up at friendsofthespoke.org. If you go to the site today, you can learn more about our fight. In addition, we started a facebook page to recruit support. The running joke was that “Friends of The Spoke” would get more friends than I have.

We then sent out three hundred letters to supportive community members and asked for their support. The community delivered, writing letter after letter to the district explaining why the paper needs to stay the same so it can produce the kind of in-depth and investigative reporting they had become accustomed to. We also worked very closely with the Student Press Law Center, who provided tremendous assistance throughout the process.

After five months of fighting, we — the students — won.

I’ll be presenting a seminar with the SPLC about our fight Saturday morning at 10am. I know it’s early, but we’ll have coffee and donuts and some good talk of censorship to get the blood flowing in the morning. I hope you can attend to hear more about how we fought back, and how you can too.

Unfortunately, though, public fights against school districts often don’t turn out as well as it did for us. But what is also disturbing is the fights that don’t happen.

A few weeks ago I met a local high school reporter while covering an event for my college paper. Before long, yes, the conversation turned to censorship. He told me how the principal always had the final say. He said the principal’s actions ensured the reporters were always second guessing themselves and always looking over their shoulders. That’s all too common, and wrong.

The challenges facing student journalists are immense, and even more so if censorship has become entrenched in administrative policy over the years. But whether the censorship is new or established, I challenge you to not take that policy at face value. You are a journalist, and you have rights.

You have a responsibility to exercise those rights, because journalism has an integral responsibility to serve the people in a democracy. The founders didn’t add the First Amendment to our Constitution to protect journalists. No, they added the First Amendment to protect the people, protect the nation — protect our democracy. They knew the critical relationship between the free press and a healthy country. They knew that without a free press, there would be no America.

So when a school tries to supersede the Constitution with district policy, I don’t see it as a challenge to that newspaper. I see it as a challenge to democracy itself.

You may not realize it — and I certainly didn’t until a few years ago — but your work day in and day out is supporting this country. Information is power, and by educating your readers on issues from gambling to pregnancy to religion, you are empowering the people.

That fact was made very clear to us as our censorship fight went on. Community members recognized that student publications provide invaluable experiences for the student journalists. But, more important to them, The Spoke provided an unfiltered and unbiased view of life at the high school. It kept them informed on topics they need to know about.

That’s because journalism is a community service. The college applications probably don’t agree with me on that one, but where else do you have such a great responsibility to uphold the values upon which this country was founded? Where else can you affect so much change and impact so many people?

So how do you protect your right to publish the truth? Start a conversation with your fellow editors, your adviser, your principal. Talk with your state journalism association, the SPLC or the new Scholastic Press Student Partners program. Then, if your rights are threatened, take action.

If you choose to pursue a fight, know it will be long and tough. But know that, in many ways, this is a fight you have to wage. Know that you’re not just fighting for yourself, but for the other editors on your publication. Fight for your younger reporters, so excited to join, so they may have the opportunity to write and report free from retaliation. To exercise their obligation to report the truth.

But your fight is more than just for your paper. Your fight is for your entire school, your community — and, in many ways, for this democracy. Because the people, the people you serve all over this country, deserve to be informed.

Thank you.

As prepared for delivery



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