For the seventh consecutive year, Paul Newman and his business partner, writer A. E. Hotchner, have presented a $25,000 award to "an American resident who has fought courageously, despite adversity, to safeguard the First Amendment right to freedom of expression as it applies to the written word."
The prize is administered by PEN American Center, a writers' organization that helps free imprisoned politically incorrect writers around the world.
The winner this year is Releah Lent, an English teacher at A. C. Mosley High School in Lynn Haven, Fla. Until she was fired as adviser to Making Waves, the student newspaper, Lent had encouraged the staff to conduct, in her words, "an open forum for student expression."
There were limits to her policy. Following the Supreme Court's 1969 Tinker decision on student free speech rights, nothing libelous, obscene or disruptive of the work of the school could be printed in Making Waves.
In news columns and editorials, the student journalists did make waves -- criticizing the administration for emphasizing sports more than academics and at one point noting that the principal did not follow through on his promises.
Releah Lent believed that the paper's responsibility was to actually inform both students and faculty. "With all the concern about student violence," Lent says, "I believe our best defense against such atrocities is a strong, free student press. The students know what is going on and will write about it -- if the administration isn't more concerned about image than in knowing the truth."
For example, there was an article in Making Waves on the dangers of student athletes using steroids. An editorial followed alleging that some of the football players were indeed on steroids. A furious coaching staff accused the investigative journalists of undermining the school's football program.
"Two months later, during Christmas vacation," Lent said while accepting the Paul Newman First Amendment Award, "one student athlete shot and killed another student in the school's parking lot over a steroid deal."
On the last day of school for the 1996-97 term, the principal, William Husfelt, removed Lent as adviser to the paper. "I was told," she says, "there was too much investigative reporting, too much negativism, and that the paper was deficient in school spirit. The principal said he wanted the paper to go in a different direction."
Having been fired for similar reasons long ago as editor of my college paper, the Northeastern University News, I had heard that song before.
Just two weeks before Lent was dismissed, Making Waves won first-place awards from the American Scholastic Press Association, the Florida Press Association and Quill and Scroll, the University of Iowa's honorary journalism society. The principal apparently did not think these honors improved the school's image.
Since Mosley is a public school, Lent filed a federal First Amendment lawsuit against the school board, the superintendent and the principal. Convinced by her lawyers that a defeat in court would create "bad law," she settled for $120,000, but she did not win back her job as adviser to the paper. The settlement did allow her to establish the school's first speech and debate program, but the subject of any schoolwide forum has to be subject to prior restraint by, of course, the principal.
A banner four-column headline in the April 1999 issue of Making Waves declared: "Struggle For Rights Finally Justified." The student paper informed one and all that its former adviser, Releah Lent, had just won the PEN Paul Newman First Amendment Award. It noted that she had been nominated by Gloria Pitkin, an indomitable veteran of the free expression wars in the Florida school system, and the two are writing a book on the vivid history of their campaigns against censorship.
Lent told Making Waves that the very best part of winning the award was that it showed "those students and parents -- who did defend Making Waves' press rights so eloquently -- that people nationally also value those rights."
In his column in the same issue, the principal did not mention the celebratory front-page story about the adviser he had fired or her warning to the student body in that story: "If we lose, or worse, voluntarily give up our rights to speak out, we will face erosion of the very democracy that protects those rights. People don't understand how important censorship is. They'll say, `It's just one book.' "
Or just one adviser to a student newspaper.