“Free Spirit” Isn’t Just for Hippies: It’s for Journalists Too

Homecoming 2015: Freedom Issue


Maria Bryk

Newspapers on display from journalists’ high schools across the country.

Did you know that 33% of Americans cannot name any of the freedoms of the First Amendment? Of the Americans that do know one or more of the freedoms, free speech is the one known best. For those who need a refresher course, the five freedoms of the First Amendment include: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition. I have to admit, before I attended the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism conference this summer, I was a little rusty on my freedoms as well.

This past summer, I was selected for an all-expense paid trip to represent Delaware at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference in Washington D.C. This program was held at the Newseum, and was sponsored by the Freedom Forum at the First Amendment Center. Along with fifty other aspiring high school journalists, I discovered what it meant to be an Al Neuharth Free Spirit. A Free Spirit is someone who is not afraid to stand up for what they believe in. A Free Spirit is someone who is engaged in the world around them, and wants to tell a story no matter the cost.

Throughout the conference, we were taught about our First Amendment rights in many ways. We got to attend a private taping of Meet the Press with Chuck Todd right after the shooting in Charleston, and hear him discuss gun violence with presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee. Afterwards, we had a question and answer session with him about journalistic integrity and the importance of being impartial.

We heard accomplished news professionals speak to us at the Newseum, including former White House Press Secretary for Gerald Ford, Ron Nessen, former freedom riders, and co-anchors of PBS Newshour, Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill. We listened to writers from big news outlets such as NPR, the Washington Post, Politico and USA Today. We were inspired by former Free Spirits, including New York Times writer and author of The Monopolists, Mary Pilon. We went on a private tour of the USA Today headquarters, and spoke with the editors-in-chief afterwards. We were issued press passes to tour the U.S. Capitol building, and sat in on the beginning of a Senate press briefing. We went to the U.S. District Court to learn about free speech in high school publications. It was there that my love for arguing collided with my love for journalism when I was selected as one of eight students to argue a case about school censorship in front of Senior United States District Judge Royce C. Lamberth.

In addition to these incredible opportunities and lessons, I was able to meet fifty other kids from across the country who were incredibly passionate, smart, and engaged. I gained a myriad of perspectives by talking to a student from each state and hearing what it is like to live across the United States.  I was able to have heated political discussions with people who had political opinions and beliefs very different than what I was used to. I felt so lucky to be a part of group of people who at the end of every single speech, lined up to ask questions and were eager to learn more.

Vermont’s representative, Emin Aličić, commented on his experience by saying, “Free Spirit was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will never forget. I got the chance to learn from the best in the industry. However, the most exciting and memorable part of the trip wasn’t that. Instead, it was the people that I met. This conference gave me a chance to meet fifty of the most intelligent and motivated seniors from all over the country. I left DC with a group of lifelong friends and to me, that’s priceless.”

Ohio’s representative, Maddie Weikel, held similar views, “It’s amazing how a simple application could sculpt a group of young journalists who are so complementary of each other. We came into the conference as a bunch of people with questions and a knack for writing, and we left truly caring for an entity bigger than ourselves, whether it was the journalism field, the quest for a higher paycheck or simply the amazingly dynamic relationships we discovered among each other.”

The Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Program taught me to value the freedoms that we as Americans often take for granted. It taught me what it meant to be a journalist in a country where there is freedom of the press, and it showed me what it would be like without. It taught me that it is a journalist’s obligation to share what is going on in the world and to keep the public informed, because a democracy cannot exist without a free and dedicated press.