Becoming a Free Spirit

By Daniel Bodden

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(photos courtesy of the Newseum Institute)

 

Daniel Bodden represented the state of Missouri at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference in Washington, D.C. from June 21-26, 2014. The conference was started by Al Neuharth, the founder of USA TODAY and the Newseum, in 2000. Every year, one representative from every state and the District of Columbia is chosen to participate.  

My journey to become a Free Spirit started with last year’s Free Spirit from Missouri, Sophie Gordon. She was the editor in chief of our newspaper and she told me she thought I had what it took to be this year’s representative from Missouri.

I had no idea what she was talking about. A free spirit? I had never used those words to describe myself, or really anyone for that matter. I didn’t know what it meant and I didn’t think I would make it. Sophie kept pushing me, so I made time (which wasn’t very hard with the eight snow days we had) and filled out the application. I submitted it, and pushed it to the back of my mind. I didn’t really think I’d make it, after all only one student was chosen from each state for this conference.

Then, one day over Spring Break, I got an email from the program director with ‘WINNER’ as the subject line. I couldn’t believe it. On my birthday, I’d be flying to the nation’s capital for a weeklong conference at the Newseum to learn from the top journalists in our country. What I didn’t know at that point, though, was that 50 of the most talented and inspiring high schoolers that I’ve ever met would be joining me.

It doesn’t take long for 51 people who have never met to branch out and get to know each other when all of them are journalists. Within hours of arriving, we were already becoming friends and ready for all that the week had to offer. By dinnertime, I found out what it feels like for 50 strangers to sing Happy Birthday to you in front of everyone at Hard Rock Cafe.

As the week progressed, we got one once-in-a-lifetime opportunity after another. We met incredible speakers like Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Sara Ganim, who broke the Jerry Sandusky story, John Lewis and Dr. Rip Patton, Freedom Riders who played a crucial role in the civil rights movement, and Frank LaMonte, the Student Press Law Center executive director, who spends his time fighting for First Amendment rights for high schoolers. When we weren’t absorbing all the wisdom these speakers had to offer, we visited sights in D.C. such as the Capitol Building, U.S. District Court of Appeals, the war memorials, famous monuments, and, of course, the Newseum.

These five days gave me a new perspective on how crucial journalism is and the need for honest, quality coverage. Almost every speaker was asked questions about how the field of journalism is said to be dying and whether this is accurate. The answer was a firm and confident no from each of the speakers. Journalism is definitely changing but it is also surviving, and it is absolutely necessary for a free society. There will always be a demand for professionals who will investigate the powerful, inform the public, and speak for the voiceless. Whether the news happens to be in print, on TV, online, in a video, or on a mobile device, it will always be there.

Another important lesson I was exposed to was the fight to protect First Amendment rights in America. The limitation of these rights may happen through court cases or corruption, but mainly it takes place through ignorance and lack of participation. There seems to be a growing acceptance of complacency and apathy in the American public as time goes on, and it is costing us. High school newspapers are especially feeling the effects of the growing push to censor and silence coverage that is controversial or unpopular. As Americans, we need to urgently fight invasions of First Amendment freedoms in order to protect ourselves as the leader of the free world. I was shocked and saddened by hearing Free Spirit after Free Spirit tell horror stories of the daily battles they fought with their administration just to be able to cover the issues that high school students need to be aware of and informed about. As someone from a school free from prior review and censorship, I can personally attest that students can be trusted to publish fair, high quality pieces that accurately portray all sides of issues important to their audience. Students may make a mistake from time to time, but these mistakes teach students crucial lessons, and often school districts who attempt to censor actually end up with the publicity and media attention they are trying to avoid.

This conference sparked in me a desire to be an active citizen, a champion of first amendment rights, and a responsible journalist. All high school students need to learn these lessons before moving on to college and adulthood. I now have a friend in every state (and D.C.), connections with leaders in the world of journalism, and experiences that last a lifetime.

So, whether you’re a journalist or not, whether you’re in high school or not, whether you think you can or not, you still have the chance to make a difference. You’re more of a free spirit than you realize.