Journalists have help in the fight for access to information

By Frank LoMonte
Brechner Center, University of Florida

The first person ever to call the Student Press Law Center’s legal hotline for help was a high-school newspaper editor from Pecos, Texas, whose principal spiked a news story that he considered too controversial. And over its 43 years, tens of thousands of students (and an occasional teacher) have called the SPLC for free legal help when school administrators censor their work – almost always for image-control reasons.

The SPLC was founded to give students like that Texas editor, Stephen Bates, a powerful ally to speak up to authority figures who, acting out of fear and insecurity, silence young voices.

But there is a different type of silencing taking place today in America’s schools and colleges, and the services offered by the SPLC have changed over the years to keep up with the new frustrations journalists face.

Over my nine years leading the SPLC’s legal staff, I developed a name for this new method of squelching unfavorable news: “Censorship by starvation.” Instead of directly ordering students not to cover certain topics – though far too much of that censorship still goes on – authorities simply deny journalists from access to vital information.

Do you want to know how many times students brought guns into the school last year? How many students got concussions playing football? Or might be deported because they’re in the U.S. without paperwork? Well, good luck getting those answers, because in recent years, journalists have been told all of that information – even without any private details about any individual student – is off-limits to the public.

State open-records laws give the public – including minors – the legal right to demand access to just about any record kept by a government agency. That includes a public school (including a charter school) or school district. Getting schools to actually comply with the law can be a challenge.

In most states, when you make a request to see a record and you get rejected, your only recourse is to get a lawyer and go to court. That’s hard enough for professional journalists whose companies have lawyers on staff. It can be especially intimidating for students to find themselves on the other side of a courtroom from the person writing their college recommendation letter.

Still, student journalists are a persistent bunch. To a determined reporter on the trail of a big story, “no” is just another way of saying “try harder.”

Students in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, are enforcing their right to know by suing their school under the Minnesota open-records law for the chance to see a hallway security video that shows a potential assault on a Muslim student. The student reported that a classmate ripped the hijab off her head, but the classmate – a popular athlete – denied the accusation and went unpunished. The video is the public’s only way of knowing whether the school covered up wrongdoing. But the school insists the footage is confidential.

As I write this column, SPLC attorney volunteers are helping two editors in Santa Rosa County, California, go to court to enforce their right to inspect the court files of a lawsuit against their high school. The judge in the case sealed the entire file – even his own order explaining why the file is sealed – so the public has no idea how the lawsuit turned out.

To respond to the growing demand for help getting access to information about schools and colleges, the SPLC launched a service in July to help non-experts take cases to court more easily.

Volunteers from major law firms are working with SPLC attorneys to come up with step-by-step instructions for enforcing state public-records laws. Find them on the SPLC website. The project is only about half done, with 26 states and the District of Columbia covered, but by 2018, guides should be finished for every state.    

I know just how important public records can be for journalists – I was one of them. Before becoming a lawyer, I chased stories about corrupt and incompetent government officials with the help of freedom-of-information laws. Those laws helped me prove that a candidate for governor cheated on his income taxes and paid nothing. They helped me prove that hospitals were misusing money meant to provide free healthcare for poor people, spending it on unnecessary luxury items like bonuses for doctors.

I believe so strongly in the public’s right to information that, starting in August, I agreed to move south and take on a job where I can devote myself full time to improving the laws that allow Americans (especially journalists) to keep watch over government agencies. I’ll be working directly with lawyers, journalists and legislators across the country on making public-access laws actually work better as director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, which is based at the University of Florida.

That doesn’t mean I’m “checking out” of the student-rights movement. I’ll stay on as volunteer co-chair of New Voices USA, a nationwide campaign to pass state laws – 13 so far, with three added in 2017 alone – to guarantee student journalists and their advisers that they can safely bring news and opinions to their communities without fear of being silenced or punished.

And it doesn’t mean students will be left without a full-time advocate protecting their rights. The SPLC has hired an internationally known legal expert and educator Hadar Harris to take over as executive director, and she brings a lifelong commitment to protecting the rights of the less-powerful against abuse.

Harris has worked in law schools in California and Washington, D.C., for the past 15 years, supervising law students as they provided legal help to people who couldn’t afford to hire their own lawyers. That is a proven track record of caring public service that makes Harris the ideal leader to take the SPLC soaring to new heights.

Professional news organizations are having a difficult time. Their audiences are shrinking, their advertisers have left for Facebook and Google, and public distrust is reaching all-time highs. But student journalism has never been better – and now students have the best human-rights lawyer in the country on their side. I’m honestly a bit envious that Hadar Harris will be the leader of the SPLC as legalized censorship in schools becomes a thing of the past – and no one will cheer louder than me on the day she finally makes it official.

Attorney Frank LoMonte became director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications in August 2017, after nine years as executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

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Putting Glam In Induction: Richland R-1 School (MO) Red Carpet Ceremony Photos

Quill and Scroll membership induction was a red carpet event at Richland R-1 School in the small Missouri town of Essex . Here are some photos from the 2015 event. Read about it in the Fall 2015 Quill & Scroll magazine.

*Click on an image to view as a gallery*

2015 Quill and Scroll Scholarship Recipients Announced

After a competitive application process, six incoming college freshmen were awarded Quill and Scroll International Honorary Society scholarships for studies in journalism or communications.

The recipients of the George and Ophelia Gallup Memorial Scholarship are Ivana Giang, graduate from Lakota East HS, and Julia Poe, of Shawnee Mission East HS. Though hailing from Ohio and Kansas, respectively, both will attend the University of Southern California in the fall. The Gallup Memorial Scholarship is named in honor of George Gallup, Quill and Scroll’s founder and renowned pollster, and his wife.

Named in honor of a former Quill and Scroll executive director, the Richard P. Johns Scholarship is awarded to Marie Obsuna, graduate from Kadena HS in Okinawa, Japan. Obsuna will attend Arizona State University.

The Edward J. Nell Scholarship, also named in honor of a former director, has three recipients. Alexzandria Churchill, graduate of Notre Dame de Sion HS in Kansas, MO, who is attending the University of Missouri, Columbia; Karringtan Harris, graduate of East Mecklenburg HS in Charlotte, NC, attending Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC; and Jacob Prothro, graduate of Westlake HS in Austin, TX, attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX.

More than 60 applicants vied for the scholarships, which range from $1,000 to $500. Seniors planning to major in journalism or communications in college and who are members of the honor society or were awarded Gold Keys in Quill and Scroll’s Yearbook Excellence or Writing, Photo and Blogging contests are eligible to apply for the scholarships. The deadline for 2016 Quill and Scroll scholarships is May 10. More information is available at

The deadline for the Quill and Scroll Yearbook Excellence Contest is Nov. 1, and for the Writing, Photo Contest and Blogging Competition, Feb. 5. Each contest recognizes individual journalistic achievements of students. Middle and junior high school journalists may enter the Quill and Scroll Writing and Photo Contest for grades 5-9, which also has a Feb. 5 deadline.

Quill and Scroll members also have the opportunity to receive a $500 college scholarship from MyMozaic, where students can create portfolios of their work and link with colleges and other enrichment opportunities. For more information, visit

Journalism Teen Club Founder Val Lauder Publishes Book: Preview an excerpt from The Back Page: The Personal Face of History by Val Lauder

It is a pleasure to look back on what high school journalists have achieved over the years, with particular attention to a group in Chicago I knew and worked with.  Indeed, they are a featured part of the recently published memoir recounting my years at the Chicago Daily News, The Back Page.   – Val Lauder

The Back Page
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Q&A: Advisers, why do you do what you do? By Mark Newton, JEA President

In his Fall 2012 JEA Column of Quill & Scroll magazine, Mark Newton shared his joys as a journalism adviser. He also shared those of other journalism teachers:

I love watching students carry real, honest and important conversations onto the page.” — Adam Dawkins, Regis Jesuit High School, Aurora, Colo.


Answers the current buzz ‘authentic learning’ with a slam dunk. Doesn’t get anymore authentic than a real product. Plus, journalism kids rock.” —Mitch Eden, Kirkwood High School, Kirkwood, Mo.


One of my students said, ‘Ms. Lawrenz, you teach your hobbies all day long.’ That is why I do it. I love my content and craft. I want others to as well.” —Heather Lawrenz, Blue Valley Southwest High School, Overland Park, Kan.


Personally, I have a passion for journalism and playing an important role in a free society. I get to share that passion with kids.” —Brad Lewis, Harrisonville High School, Harrisonville, Mo.


I love that there is always something happening. Love that it’s always changing. Love that it teaches skills beyond the book.” —Aaron Manfull, Frances Howell North High School, St. Charles, Mo.


I love how it is so easy to bring the world outside of the school walls into the classroom. Students learn applicable skills too!” —Beth Ramach Phillips, Frances Howell North High School, St. Charles, Mo.


I get to teach the subject that I’m most passionate about. And my students’ ‘homework’ can make a change.” —Matt Rasgorshek, Westside High School, Omaha, Neb.


No other class, activity or club offers students the opportunity to practice real-world skills and produce a valuable product.” —Tracy Anne Sena, Convent of the Sacred Heart High School, San Francisco.


Journalism teaches students to be people who seek out knowledge and truth and it has the ability to change the world.” —Matthew Schott, Frances Howell Central High School, St. Charles, Mo.


Journalism satisfies my own constant curiosity, and I love watching kids become more aware/connected to the world in the years I have them.” —Michael Snead, Colonial Forge High School, Stafford, Va.


I love working with motivated kids who actually feel a sense of responsibility and purpose.” —Jim Streisel, Carmel High School, Carmel, Ind.


I love to see students drive their own learning and fuel others to augment their perspectives. It enhances my hope in the future.” —Karen Wagner, Eaglecrest High School, Aurora, Colo.


Nothing quite like watching the pride and passion of students as they see their work come to life. Also, every day’s a new adventure.” —Nicole Wilson, Carmel High School, Carmel, Ind.

Quill and Scroll Students on the Road

Watch Quill and Scroll students share their experiences when they take the show on the road.

A Prestigious Past: The Big Inch Club

Greg Stiles, right

Quill and Scroll Club Members Reflect

Before computers with spell check, cellphones, and the World Wide Web, there was the Big Inch Club. This Quill and Scroll club honored high school journalists who had written more than 10,000 column inches, an equivalent to writing 90 full pages of a daily newspaper.
In 1947, Ronald Dugger of Brackenridge High School in San Antonio, Texas, became the first

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Alumni Anecdotes










Two Quill and Scroll members share their lives since high school

Literally cutting and pasting is what it took for Dolores Strauss and her fellow students to create their high school newspaper in 1947.  The Quill and Scroll alumnus described the detailed process of typing everything and using make-up pages to actually paste the content on the page

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