Mary Rice, who will begin her senior year at Grand County High School this fall, represented the state of Utah at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, held July 14-19 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
Rice was one of 51 high school journalists – one from every state and the District of Columbia – who explored the First Amendment and the watchdog role of a free press during the six-day conference.
“It was utterly phenomenal and one of the most memorable and meaningful experiences I have ever had,” Rice said shortly after returning home to Moab on July 24.
Rice and the other participants heard from some 50 presenters during their whirlwind week in the nation’s capital, including some of the top names in the journalism industry.
Rice said she personally met USA Today founder Al Neuharth and visited with him multiple times. She and the other participants also attended a taping of the television news program “Meet the Press,” and talked with host David Gregory and NBC News producers afterward.
“We were treated to exclusive insights into many of Washington’s offices in the Capitol and federal courthouses,” Rice said, adding that she is working on writing up a full account of her experience.
“Each workshop, seminar, speaker, or tour opened our eyes to a new way of looking at our rights and responsibilities as the press and as American citizens,” Rice said. “We were allowed to have just enough down time to keep us relaxed though, and I think all of us have made friends and connections that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.”
Rice said the conference also “opened our eyes to new career ideas” in the field of journalism.
“One major focus of the conference was how the field is adapting to the perpetual flood of 24/7 information,” she said. “We also explored our rights in a world where social media can blur the lines between free speech and threats, and what the difference is between what we are allowed to do and what we should do when we can instantly post, tweet, share, or otherwise release information into the world.”
Rice has been a contributing writer and photographer for The Times-Independent, including covering several high school sports, for the past two years. She has also been a regular staff writer and editor for Grand County High School’s student newspaper, The Devils’ Advocate, and will serve as editor-in-chief this coming year.
According to a news release from the Free Spirit conference, the Freedom Forum, the Newseum’s parent organization, directs the annual academic and scholarship program to inspire and equip some of the nation’s best and brightest students to pursue journalism and media careers. The high school seniors, chosen from hundreds of applicants, attended the conference free of charge, with all expenses paid. In addition, the participants will receive $1,000 college scholarships, according to the news release.
The Freedom Forum joined with the Journalism Education Association, high school journalism teachers and news organizations throughout the country to promote the program. Applicants were required to submit work samples, letters of reference, a transcript and essays about their interest in journalism and their free spirit qualities.
The 20 boys and 31 girls in this year’s group reflected the multicultural diversity of the United States. Twenty-one of the students are from diverse backgrounds including African American, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, and Middle Eastern, the press release states.
The Free Spirit participants’ itinerary for the week included visits to the White House, the U.S. Capitol and the headquarters of USA Today. They also attended a National Press Club luncheon program about the “State of the First Amendment” and a courtroom simulation with U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell.
Other presenters included Bob Schieffer of CBS News, Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour, Susan Page of USA Today, Carl Leubsdorf of The Dallas Morning News, First Amendment Center founder John Seigenthaler, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Sara Ganim, Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte, U.S. Sen. John Thune, former U.S. Sen. George McGovern, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, U.S. Senate Historian Donald Ritchie and White House Deputy Press Secretary Jamie Smith.