Athens, Ga. – Three high school students were selected from a record 129 entrants as winners in the annual First Amendment Essay Contest, sponsored by the University of Georgia’s Georgia Scholastic Press Association, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and Cox Institute for Newspaper Management Studies.
“This year, 129 students throughout Georgia, the most ever, submitted essays in this contest, revealing that probing discussion is under way among high schoolers, and that delights all of us,” said Conrad Fink, director of the Cox Institute and Grady College professor of journalism. “I am sorry only that we could not have 129 winners.”
Caitlyn Van Orden, a senior from East Coweta High School in Sharpsburg, won first place in the contest and will be awarded a $100 cash prize. Per Van Orden’s request, $100 will also be awarded to the Eluminatus Courant, Coweta County’s home school newspaper.
“Caitlyn Van Orden’s essay was selected as this year’s winner because judges saw in it her profoundly deep commitment to the First Amendment and the rights it protects for all Americans,” Fink said.
Finishing in second place was Michelle Hamilton, a freshman from North Forsyth High School in Cumming. Hamilton will receive $75 and an additional $75 for the school newspaper, North High Times. Senior Kelsey Spinks from Eagle’s Landing High School in McDonough won third place. She will receive $50 along with $50 for the school’s newspaper, The Eagle’s Time.
Van Orden’s essay discussed her own battle with First Amendment rights, when her high school principal censored several articles in the school newspaper’s first issue of the year, discarded 500 undistributed newspapers and required the newspaper class to only print positive ideas about the school. Van Orden protested online, held a rally in front of her hometown courthouse in Newnan and appealed to the Coweta County Board of Education to change the county’s student publications policy. The board supported the principal’s actions.
“Now I must make a decision on what my next battle strategy will be – I cannot in good conscience give up and allow unfounded censorship to take place in our county,” Van Orden wrote. “If this censorship can occur at my school, it could occur anywhere. … The key to keeping freedoms is to fiercely protect them, and it is every American citizen’s responsibility to do so.”
Hamilton’s essay discussed the evolution of the First Amendment during the past 200 years and explained how “student journalists continue to publish their thoughts and represent the student body even with the restraints of censorship” after fictional scenarios used to discuss drug abuse, teen pregnancy and STDs were removed from the school’s yearbook and newspaper. She applied the censorship to a larger picture.
“Still, writers enjoy the freedom of expressing themselves openly, without fear of punishment, and continue to inspire the world with their ideas,” Hamilton wrote.
Spinks wrote about the original intention of the founding fathers of the Constitution and how students should approach the freedom with maturity. She wrote, “In order to be genuine reporters, students must delve into the abyss of controversial issues and extract the stories that others dare not touch, such as social rights in the Middle East or gay marriage, delivering the readers insightful news in its purest and most basic form.”
“Newspapers with a hard-hitting attack to all stories can lift the rose-colored glasses from the eyes of our ignorant peers and unveil the truth for all to see,” Spinks wrote.
The winners of the fourth annual contest will be recognized at the Georgia Scholastic Press Association Awards Ceremony held in Macon on May 2. The three winning essays can be read in their entirety at www.grady.uga.edu/gspa/1stAmendmentEssay
Organized in 1928, GSPA assists Georgia high school media programs and students by encouraging the production of quality publications and broadcast programs through instruction and contests. There were 150 GSPA member publications for the 2007-08 school year, representing some 3,000 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 University of Georgia’s 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 Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism and the Peabody Awards, one of the premier programs in broadcasting. For more information, see www.grady.uga.edu.