Celebrating a Century of Scholastic Journalism Education

JEA Centennial

Celebrating a Century of Scholastic Journalism Education

JEA Centennial

Celebrating a Century of Scholastic Journalism Education

JEA Centennial

Fern Valentine, a lifetime champion of free speech and student expression

Bradley Wilson
Fern Valentine was honored with the 2023 Carl Towley Award at the National High School Journalism Convention in Boston on Nov. 4, 2023.

Just a month shy of her 90th birthday, Fern Valentine, the 2023 Carl Towley Award winner, told the 200 people at the Adviser Luncheon in Boston “Thank you for recognizing that instead of a has been, I am a once was and for a few days maybe a still am.”

She is definitely a “still am.” Her path to JEA’s highest award recognition began when she accepted a teaching/advising position at Auburn High School when she was 40 years old with four teenage children.

“I wanted the job because it was in my hometown so I wouldn’t have to drive so far. I agreed to advise the newspaper,” Valentine said. “I knew the kids would know more than I did so I had to learn quickly. Dorothy McPhillips  (JEA president 1983-1987)was so dedicated. She and Barb Nilsen became my mentors.”

The students had started the paper the year before with the help of the district media person. They established a strong editorial policy that said the paper would maintain professional standards.

“Right from the start we were not censored and they never have been at Auburn,” Valentine said. “If a question came up, we would ask the local paper if they would print the story. If they would, then we would.”

As her influence expanded beyond Auburn High School, she became known as a First Amendment advocate. She was named WJEA Distinguished Adviser in 1985 and served as WJEA president from 1986-88. She received the JEA Medal of Merit in 1990 and the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992. She became WJEA Student Freedom of Expression chair and joined JEA’s Student Press Right Commission. Mike Heistand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center, dubbed her First Amendment Fern.

After she retired in 1993, she intensified her work with student free speech, especially in Washington state where she focused on New Voices and getting a free student expression bill passed. The bill passed in 2018 and Valentine was there to shake the governor’s hand.

“That only took 31 years,” she said.

She is quick to add that the work is not yet done and she will continue the fight.

“I want JEA to continue to promote New Voices, she said. “That’s the most important. The organization also needs to provide a place (like conventions) where students can come together and learn and win awards and show them off at school board meetings.”

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