Two very different stories this week, both involving young people, are reminders of the power each of us holds in the First Amendment and its guarantees of free speech and freedom of the press.
The first story is one you may have missed. A pair of budding journalists at Herriman High School, just outside Salt Lake City, smelled something fishy when a popular history teacher suddenly left the faculty.
The Washington Post reports that with a bit of shoe-leather reporting, Conor Spahr, news editor of the student newspaper, The Herriman Telegraph, and Max Gordon, his editor-in-chief, soon were able to write a story detailing evidence that the teacher was fired for misconduct involving other students.
Their account, which had been approved by the Telegraph’s faculty adviser, caught the eye of other local journalists, who quickly corroborated it. But embarrassed school officials purged the original piece from the Telegraph’s website last week and then shut the site down entirely.
Undaunted, Spahr and Gordon created a website of their own, The Herriman Telegram, re-published their piece, and so drew more coverage from other news outlets.
“We want to actually do our job as a publication and write stories that people care about,” Gordon told the Salt Lake Tribune. “We can’t do that with the Telegraph when anything even slightly controversial is censored.”
The Telegraph’s website is back up, but Spahr, Gordon and other students no longer have a say in which stories can be posted. So, they’re keeping their Herriman Telegram alive and offering it as a platform for student journalism from around the country that has been censored by school administrators.
The second story has been on the front page of newspapers, the home pages of news websites, and in the lead position on news broadcasts across the country for more than a week.
Larry Nassar, longtime athletic trainer for USA Gymnastics, was sentenced Wednesday to 40-175 years in prison for molesting hundreds of young women – children really – over a 25-year span. The stories of abuse courageously told in court by more than 150 of Nassar’s victims triggered a national spasm of outrage and revulsion, prompting the resignations of USA Gymnastics’ top leaders and the longtime president of Michigan State University, where Nassar also worked and preyed on young women.
As Nassar was sentenced, the chief prosecutor in the case, Michigan Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis, paid tribute to all the women who came forward to testify. But she singled out Rachael Denhollander, the first to go public with her story, for special praise.
“Thank God Rachael Denhollander made the first contact with the reporter and decided to allow them to publish her name. How many times have we heard that without those stories and Rachael, victims would not have reported, they would not be here to speak this week, to expose what truly happened all of these years behind those doors and under that towel,” Povilaitis said.
CNN published Povilaitis’s entire statement, which is well worth your time, but her reflections on the importance of freedom of speech and a free press in unraveling the scandal are especially powerful, particularly in an era in which we hear so much about “fake news:”
“The final takeaway is that we as a society need investigative journalists more than ever,” she said. “What finally started this reckoning and ended this decades long cycle of abuse was investigative reporting. Without that first Indianapolis Star story in August of 2016, without the story where Rachael came forward publicly shortly thereafter, he would still be practicing medicine, treating athletes and abusing kids.
“Let that sink in for a minute. Right now, he would be at his office ... not far from this courtroom and the Michigan State University campus abusing children, had it not been for the investigative reporters and Rachael who brought this case. We know federal law enforcement did not stop him, nor did trainers or coaches or deans or medical supervisors. Victim disclosures to adults didn't stop him. Reporters began the story and excellent victim-centered, offender-focused police and prosecutors grabbed the baton and brought us here today.”
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Media and Democracy