For the editors of the Chantilly High School newspaper, it was deciding to highlight free speech on the cover of the Purple Tide newspaper.
For the staff of the high school’s student television newscast, it was a three-minute piece about the demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., concerning racial tensions between citizens and police. And for the teens who oversee the Chantilly High yearbook, it’s the independence to edit the Odyssey without meddling by the administration.
“It’s completely up to us,” said Rachel Palmer, 17, a senior and co-editor of the yearbook. “There’s no one to say, ‘You can’t do that.’ ”
It’s that kind of authority — to publish whatever the students want to — that earned the high school journalists the Journalism Education Association’s 2015 First Amendment Press Freedom Award. Chantilly was one of seven high schools to receive the honor and the only school in Virginia. The students will accept the award next month at a student journalism convention.
The award comes a year after Chantilly principal Teresa Johnson was named outstanding administrator of the year by the Southern Interscholastic Press Association.
Johnson, who became Chantilly’s principal in 2011, was honored for supporting an independent student press. Johnson said she has no direct influence on student media and does not review students’ work before publication. Students described her as a crucial ally because she does not interfere.
Johnson said that her goal is ensuring that faculty advisers teach the students how to be responsible journalists “without infringing on their abilities to express themselves.”
“There is no greater real-life experience for our students than journalism, because they learn to problem-solve, think critically, collaborate, deal with conflict and communicate,” Johnson said. “I have faith in our students’ abilities to make decisions and, at times, to learn from their mistakes as well.”
Erin Fowler, 18, a senior and co-editor of the Purple Tide, said that one example of editorial independence came when a faculty member said he had been misquoted in an interview with a reporter. But the reporter had recorded the conversation, so editors kept the quote.
“We stood our ground,” Fowler said. “It really modeled our First Amendment rights.”
Morgan Bedford, 18, a senior who is an executive producer of the Knightly News television show, said that she has met students at journalism conferences who spoke of being told not to pursue controversial stories. Bedford said that Chantilly students encourage one another to pursue sensitive topics, such as religion in the media in light of attacks in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and a supermarket that catered to French Jews.
Gloria Boland, 17, a senior who is also a co-editor of the newspaper, said the journalists exercise their First Amendment rights on a regular basis.
“We’re definitely a fiery group,” Boland said. “We have very fierce debates in the newspaper. But we all respect each other’s opinions.”
The newspaper has addressed affirmative action and Twitter as a teenage realm for hate speech. The upcoming issue of the Purple Tide will include dueling reviews of the hit film “American Sniper” by a student who is Muslim and another who is not.
“They both saw the same movie and took away different experiences,” Boland said. “Highlighting students who are activists and understand the value of freedom of speech, that’s the most important thing we can do.”
Boland has also met student journalists at other high schools who say that their administrators discourage them from writing about certain topics.
“It seems backwards that schools would limit what students write or express,” Boland said.
Ryan Rickard, an executive producer for the Chantilly High television station, said that the responsibility should remain with student journalists.
“We try to report facts and let the people we interview speak for themselves,” said Rickard, 17, a senior. “We all work together to give an unbiased look at both sides of the issue.”