UGA-based journalism organizations announce First Amendment contest winners

Athens, Ga. – Three Gwinnett County students and one Coweta County student won top prizes in the first annual statewide First Amendment Essay Contest, sponsored by the University of Georgia’s Cox Institute for Newspaper Management Studies, Georgia Scholastic Press Association (GSPA) and Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

L’Anita Weiler, a senior at Gwinnett County’s Berkmar High School, and Carolyn Crist, a junior at Coweta County’s East Coweta High School, tied for first place in the contest. Each was awarded a $100 cash prize and plaque, and $100 was awarded to their respective school publications, The Berkmar Liberty and East Coweta Smoke Signals.

Weiler wrote about her personal battles upholding the First Amendment. In her essay, she wrote, “Schools seem to have lost their vision. They seek to foster students in a stimulating, thought-provoking learning environment, yet when student journalists try to point out faults or suggest change, they’re shot down. Teachers emphasize independent, critical thinking, but students aren’t allowed to practice it in real life.”

Crist did some comprehensive research looking into the history of the First Amendment and its development through various court cases. She concluded that “the First Amendment must continue to be treasured as a democracy preserver, public informer and rights defender.”

Two students from Gwinnett County’s Brookwood High School won second and third place in the contest. Junior Rebecca Stewart was awarded $75 and a certificate for placing second, and senior Michele Byrd earned $50 and a certificate for her third place finish. Their high school broadcast program, “Brookwood Up-Close,” received a total of $125.

Stewart wrote that censorship of the high school press not only circumvents freedom of speech, but also shields them from the real world. She wrote, “By giving students the right to determine what is or is not appropriate to publish on their own, adults can only provide them with more responsibility and a better understanding of the consequences of one’s actions.”

Byrd wrote that civics education is the key for students gaining a better comprehension of the First Amendment. “If more students are educated in government and the inner-workings of the Constitution, they will hopefully be more appreciative of the gifts they have been given.”

The contest was spurred by a much-publicized Knight Foundation survey that found America’s high schools are leaving the First Amendment behind. The contest was open to students whose high school publications are members of GSPA. The 48 entrants were required to write a 300- to 500-word essay focusing on the importance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in American life and in the student’s school newspaper, magazine, yearbook or broadcast.

The winners were recognized April 29 at the GSPA Spring Awards Ceremony held on the UGA campus. Their essays were recorded for broadcast on WUGA 91.7/97.9 FM, the National Public Radio affiliate in Athens.

Organized in 1928 by the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the Georgia Scholastic Press Association assists Georgia high school media programs and students by encouraging the production of quality publications and broadcast programs through instruction and contests. There are 117 GSPA member publications for the 2004-05 school year, representing some 2,500 students across the state.

The Cox Institute for Newspaper Management Studies provides and supports training to prepare students and professionals for management positions and sponsors applied research that addresses contemporary issues confronting the newspaper industry.

The Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication is home to both GSPA and the Cox Institute. It provides seven undergraduate majors including advertising, broadcast news, magazines, newspapers, public relations, publication management and telecommunication arts. The college offers two graduate degrees, and is home to the Peabody Awards, one of the premier programs in broadcasting. For more information, visit www.grady.uga.edu.