The Fern Valentine Award puts an end to the JagWire lawsuit

Yesterday the Washington Journalism Education Association hosted it’s annual state convention.  It’s a big deal for student journalists.  It puts them in touch with folks that do journalism for a living, and gives them an opportunity to practice their skills in the write-off competitions.  I’ve attended every state and national convention since I began advising in 2007.  I never tire of them.  the journalism education community is very tight and very supportive of one another.  It is always great to see my colleagues and hear how their years are going.

Yesterday was a very unusual day, however.  During the awards ceremony, I was given an award.  I received the Fern Valentine Freedom of Expression Award for protecting student free press rights.  I was shocked, and had no idea I was being considered for this honor.  I am deeply grateful to Fern, and my friends at WJEA for considering me for this award, but it comes with a lot of conflicting emotions.

The award stems from my role in a lawsuit filed during my first year at Emerald Ridge,  due to a focus article we wrote in 2008 on oral sex.  In the article we used student names, with permission, which resulted in a lawsuit for invasion of privacy against the Puyallup School District. That was successfully defended in 2010, was denied an appeal, and ultimately died when the Washington State Supreme Court refused to grant a review in September 2012.  Though we won the suit, there were certain costs.  I received an official reprimand in my personnel file.  All three high schools in our school district lost their open forum status.  All student communications-newspapers, plays, daily news, improv skits-were subject to censorship.  We won, but we lost a great deal.

The years leading up to the trial were the most difficult I’ve endured in nearly thirty years as a teacher.  I felt as though I’d embarassed myself, my school, my principal, my district, all of student journalism. It was difficult for me to hold up my head around school, even at journalism doings like summer camp.  I was ashamed, even though I believed we hadn’t acted improperly or violated any person’s rights.  Though I have come around a bit since the original jury verdict, I do my best not to draw too much attention to the case or my role in it.

On the other hand, I also have the opportunity to work with truly wonderful students in the newspaper class, brilliant young people I stay in touch with long after they leave ER. We worked hard together, I learned from them, and they make me a better adviser and a better person. Even though the experience was awful, I must also admit it’s given me a different  perspective on what we do, and how our work in the newsroom impacts those we write about.   I’m also fortunate that in my career I’ve had the opportunity to have some unbelievable experiences with kids: my five years at TOPS, my eight years working in the Co-op at Firgrove, but right at the top is my experience as JagWire adviser.

I’m not a rah-rah person.  I’m more of a quietly supportive kind of guy.  I feel a certain amount of uneasiness at receiving this award.  Yes, I’ve endured through this difficult experience.  I stayed in my job, and I’ve been supportive of my students first amendment rights (that I also feel a certain amount of responsibility for damaging.)     This award is a great honor, and I am thrilled to be selected as the recipient, and it will help me breathe a sigh of relief to know this part of my life is over.

However, I do share this with some important people that were drawn into this experience with me.  My principal, Brian Lowney, at first expressed disappointment in JagWire 8.5 and me personally.  But he kept me on as adviser and had his own career on the line through all this as much if not more than I did.  He’s always been committed to student press freedom and has been a good friend to me, the paper, and my students.  My colleagues at WJEA were always the first to stick up for me. Many of them testified at the trial in 2010 including Kathy Schrier, Fern Valentine and Vince DeMiero.  Throughout all,  the student journalism community has been welcoming, kind and supportive, especially my Puyallup colleagues Kay Locey and Sandra Coyer.  Jim Meyerhoff, my yearbook colleague at Emerald Ridge kept me feeling “normal” at work and is someone I count as a good friend. Finally, from the first day of public and district backlash my wife Lorri and my kids Pat, Michelle, and Casey have been my rock.  I tried not to talk a lot about the JagWire trial because there was always something more important going on at home.  But when I did need to share, whether it was the really hard stuff, or the little celebrations, they were always there for me.

So there.  I’ve made my own acceptance speech.  I’ve been trying move past this event for five years.  Though I’ve been fortunate that every little event along the way has been something of a “victory,” I’ve tried not to celebrate too long or too loudly.  This award (and it is a beautiful plaque) will hang on my office wall at school.  It will be a reminder this incident is over and I can move on.

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