By COURTNEY LAMDIN
In an event usually meant to honor working journalists, the Vermont Press Association’s annual meeting last week strayed from the norm to recognize student reporters who won a censorship battle earlier this year.
The VPA bestowed the New Voices Award to the staff of the Burlington High School Register at the Capitol Plaza in Montpelier last Thursday, just two days after the district’s school board codified a policy protecting student journalists’ First Amendment rights.
“We’ve learned the power of a story firsthand. In an era where those in power openly attack the freedom of the press, there is nothing more important than standing up for the right to publish and share information,” Register editor Halle Newman told the crowd. “After this experience, we can say with confidence that the future of journalism looks bright in Vermont.”
Newman and her fellow editors Nataleigh Noble, Julia Shannon-Grillo and Jenna Peterson broke the story September 10 that the Vt. Agency of Education cited BHS guidance counselor with misconduct after a yearlong investigation. The school ordered the Register to remove the story from its website, and the editors did, fearing retaliation on their faculty adviser.
What followed was a storm of support from the VPA, Student Press Law Center and other media freedom groups. Ultimately, the students prevailed by using the “New Voices” legislation passed in Vermont in 2017 to protect student journalists from prior restraint.
“We want to thank everyone in this room who told our story, welcomed us into this community and taught us how to be better journalists,” Newman said.
The VPA also recognized longtime lobbyist Joe Choquette of Downs Rachlin Martin with the Matthew Lyon Award, so named for the former U.S. congressman jailed in Vergennes in 1798 under the Alien and Sedition Act for criticizing then-President John Adams in a letter to the editor.
A former reporter himself, Choquette has spent the last 19 years as external affairs director at DRM, from where he’ll retire this year after three decades.
“Joe has been the eyes and ears at the Vermont Statehouse when it comes to public records, open meetings, court access and identifying some ill-advised proposed legislation,” VPA president Lisa Loomis said.
Past Lyon award recipients include U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), former state archivist Greg Sanford and former ACLU Vermont director Allen Gilbert.
The press corps also heard a timely presentation about newsroom safety by St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor and Sgt. Jason Wetherby. The VPA requested the talk after the mass shooting that killed five journalists at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md. this June.
The officers helped create SURVIVermont, a coalition of law enforcement and medical personnel, to better prepare citizens for an active shooter situation. They’ve championed two national programs—Run, Hide, Fight and Stop the Bleed—aimed at reducing casualties in mass shooting events.
“We’re not trying to scare people,” Taylor said. “We’re trying to tell people they can make a difference.”
The curriculum is essentially the same as that delivered in Vermont schools. After the Sandy Hook, Conn. massacre six years ago, experts said sheltering in place may not always be the best strategy, and emergency plans now call for kids to evacuate or even fight back if their lives are in immediate danger.
The lessons are transferable to any workplace, including newsrooms, Wetherby said. He encouraged journalists to scope out emergency exits in public places where they report and to think about what they’d do in a mass shooting scenario. He also urged newsrooms to create their own emergency operations plans and demonstrated how to use a tourniquet.
Lastly, the journalists heard from U.S. Attorney for Vermont Christina Nolan who spoke about her office’s efforts in prosecuting drug, firearms, human trafficking and other cases.
VPA members questioned Nolan’s position on federal immigration laws, a topic central to debates in Washington, particularly given Vermont’s status as a border state and one that relies on immigrant labor for its agricultural industry.
Nolan said her office enforces the laws passed by Congress and said her priority is enforcing human smuggling across Vermont’s border with Canada.
She also spoke about marijuana legalization, noting that despite many states’ recent efforts, the drug is still federally illegal, and about the resurgence of stimulants like methamphetamine and crack cocaine.
Seven Days political editor Paul Heintz asked Nolan to react to President Donald Trump’s characterization of the press as “the enemy of the people,” a charge that spurred a coordinated editorial campaign nationwide. Nolan declined to play politics, instead opting to shower the Vermont press corps with praise.
“I think you’ve been wonderful, fair,” she said. “You’re part of what goes into making this state the best place it can possibly be. I think the press is crucial.”
The VPA ended the day with awarding its own members, including the Addison Independent, the Indy’s cousin paper which won general excellence for non-daily papers. Indy executive editor Courtney Lamdin was re-elected to her post as northwest Vermont representative on the VPA executive board.