Valentine named 2023 Carl Towley recipient, JEA’s highest honor

Valentine named 2023 Carl Towley recipient, JEA’s highest honor

By Louisa Avery, MJE, JEA awards chair

Most teachers, upon retirement, actually do retire; not so with Fern Valentine. 

“Retirement” in 1993 was her opportunity to become busier than ever in her work to ensure that students have the press rights they deserve, said WJEA Past President Vincent DeMiero, CJE, and WJEA Executive Director Kathy Schrier, MJE.

“Like Carl Towley, who was recognized for his dedication to teaching ‘the fundamentals of civic responsibility’ and for perfecting these fundamentals ‘by living them each day,’ Fern Valentine devotes herself to helping students become engaged citizens through practicing their First Amendment rights,” Dimiero and Schrier said. 

Valentine was the adviser to the Troy In’Voice Newsmagazine at Auburn (Washington) High School, from 1973 until her retirement in 1993.

“Fern’s story in scholastic journalism began like so many other English teachers who became outstanding journalism advisers — she was ‘offered the opportunity’ to advise the school newspaper,” Dimiero and Schrier said. “It was 1973, and fearing that saying ‘no’ would not be a good thing for job security, Fern agreed. And like so many other teachers who say ‘yes’ to this request, she soon became hooked. Fern’s involvement gradually grew beyond the classroom.”

Valentine was named WJEA Distinguished Adviser in 1985 and served as WJEA president from 1986 to 1988. She was on the committee that developed the official journalism curriculum for Washington’s schools in 1990, representing journalism teachers on the Washington Commission for Student Learning. 

She received the JEA Medal of Merit Award in 1990 and the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992. In 1992 she became WJEA Student Freedom of Expression chair and began serving on the national JEA Student Press Rights Commission (now Committee) – roles that she still holds today.

“Probably the hardest job — if not the longest one — was Fern’s commitment to getting a free student expression bill passed in her home state of Washington,” retired adviser Candace Perkins Bowen, MJE, said. “Her battle began in 1992. In 2009, one attempt to pass a bill failed, and the same language was in neighboring Oregon’s similar bill — which passed. Such defeats didn’t stop Fern.

“She absolutely led the fight in Washington to get a state law passed to protect student media against censorship. She camped out in administrative offices in Puyallup following one instance of censorship and moved administrators there to change their minds. She has testified in court about the importance of free student media. Many in the state said they fought even harder to pass the bill for Fern.”

When the bill did finally pass and the governor signed it March 21, 2018, Valentine was there to shake his hand.

Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at the Student Press Law Center has worked there since 1989, primarily operating the legal hotline service. 

“Believe it or not, the first phone call I ever took at the Student Press Law Center was from a Fern Valentine calling from a small town in Washington,” Hiestand said. “Getting to know and work with ‘First Amendment Fern,’ as she is known, has been such a gift. She lives and breathes and believes in the promise of student journalism and press freedom like few others.”

Founded in 1924, JEA supports free and responsible scholastic journalism by providing resources and educational opportunities, promoting professionalism, encouraging and rewarding student excellence and teacher achievement, and an atmosphere which encompasses diversity yet builds unity. It is headquartered at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas.

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