In 2023 in Boston, Fern Valentine received the Journalism Education Association’s (JEA’s) Carl Towley Award, the JEA’s highest honor. Her path to the award wasn’t a traditional one.
Fern gladly accepted a teaching position at Auburn High School in 1974. She was pleased to be able to teach close to home. She’d lived in Auburn with her husband since 1958. He’d grown up in Auburn. After meeting at Western Washington University and marrying, the couple raised their four children in Auburn.
It turns out that part of Fern’s new job included supervising the student newspaper staff. She had no experience in journalism.
Interestingly, Fern hasn’t advised a school newspaper in thirty years. She retired in 1993. However, she didn’t leave her students behind. She is well known in the education community for her indefatigable efforts to ensure students receive their First Amendment rights as members of the press.
Since 1992, Fern fought to end student censorship through legislation known as the New Voices Act. On March 21, 2018, Washington State became the fourteenth state to pass a New Voices law. When Governor Jay Inslee signed the legislation into law, Fern was there to shake his hand.
“The New Voices law,” she says, “protects a student journalist’s right to write and voice opinions about subjects of their choosing without administrative interference, as long as they follow professional standards and their work doesn’t disrupt the educational process.”
Fern says the law’s impact makes a difference every day for student journalists, citing a recent example in California. After a school stabbing brought unwelcome attention to a Southern California high school, the student newspaper covered the incident with reporting and editorials. The principal attempted to oppress that coverage. That is until his lawyer informed him his attempted censorship would violate that state’s New Voices law.
“[Students] learn to seek out people who have the information they need to bring a story to life, but also they face these sources one-on-one and ask the important questions needed,” said Fern in her Carl Towley Award acceptance speech. “Certainly, journalism students are more informed consumers of media no matter what career they choose.”
In addition to her compelling work for student media freedom, Fern encouraged student responsibility and leadership in her classroom. She credits her perspective to Dorothy McPhillips. After the two met at Washington JEA workshops, Dorothy became Fern’s mentor.
“Dorothy taught me that students learn more if they are truly in charge,” Fern says. “Our role was to advise them, and let them make their own decisions about their newspaper.”
Fern also encouraged her students to interact as much as possible with professional media.
“If our editorial staff was uncertain about printing a story subject’s name, they would call the editor of the Auburn Reporter and ask what to do. If the professional editor said the Examiner would run the name, we would too,” she said.
Not surprisingly, many of her students continued to study journalism in college and established professional careers in media.
“Schools love to say they are teaching students sellable skills,” said Fern in her speech. “School media is a wonderful example of those skills. Students work as a team to produce a product of interest to their audience within a budget and a deadline. What other class does that?”
The Carl Towey Award is the latest of many accolades Fern has received for her work in and after the classroom. She received a JEA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992. She has also received the Pioneer Award, the National Scholastic Press Association’s highest accolade. The Fern Valentine Freedom of Expression Award is named in her honor. It’s presented to a Washington Journalism Education Association (WJEA) member who demonstrates tireless energy toward student press freedom. While she no longer attends the annual JEA conferences, she remains a lifetime member of the JEA and WJEA.
Fern loves living at Wesley Lea Hill. She says it’s easy to make friends because everyone is so friendly and engaged. To no one’s surprise, she remains very active as a floor rep. She also chaired the committee responsible for adding a gazebo to the garden and replacing the patio cushions with more comfortable options. Fern is also an active member of the Resident Council. She stays in shape so she can keep up her active lifestyle.
“I attended two exercise classes today,” she says. “I also make sure I get my steps by walking outdoors when during warm weather and in the halls when it’s colder.”
Fern celebrated her 90th birthday in December 2023. Her milestone wasn’t lost on attendees at the Boston JEA Conference. Of the 90+ birthday cards she received, her 88th card came from a man who had been her student over 30 years ago. Her influence on scholastic journalism continues to reach more generations.