• David Wolfe Bender

A Week in Review: The Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference

For an admirer of journalism, you really could not ask for a better week



The First Amendment is my passion. Whether it be writing and editing stories, studying case law, or debating what is and isn't covered by the freedom of religion, the First Amendment is the pinnacle of the United States's government system, and I love it.


It was for that reason that I applied to the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference. The annual conference–hosted by the Freedom Forum Institute at the Newseum each year–caters to rising Upper School 12th graders who aim to pursue a journalism career or major in their future. Each of the 51 scholars (one from each state and the District of Columbia) receives an all-expenses paid trip to the District for the conference and a $1,000 scholarship towards future journalism education.


There is no better way to say this: those who love journalism need to apply to this conference. I have yet to experience or find another opportunity that would better allow me to express my love of journalism, let alone doing so around fifty of the brightest student journalists in the country.


Included in this story are some of my personal highlights from the conference.

The conference's namesake is Al Neuharth, a journalism pioneer who founded USA Today, a publication that now controls dozens of local newspapers in the United States. Additionally, he is the founder of the Freedom Forum Institute and the Newseum.


The story of the program's creation is an interesting one. When the Newseum was built, the Freedom Forum's board wanted to name the building after Neuharth. While honored, he preferred to instead create a program for high school students, which would allow them to come to the District of Columbia to learn about journalism. And hence, the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference was born. Neuharth attended and spoke to attendees every conference until his death in 2013.


Considering Neuharth's close connection to the conference, his family now attends the conference each year. The first day is entirely dedicated to his legacy and life, with the headlining event being a panel with surviving members of his family. The panelists were Jan Neuharth-Keusch (daughter), AJ Neuharth-Keusch (grandson), and Dani Neuharth-Keusch (granddaughter).

Dani Neuharth-Keusch (left), AJ Neuharth-Keusch (middle), and Jan Neuharth-Keusch (right) speak on a panel about Neuharth's life

During the panel, they all discussed his record of tenacity. When he founded USAToday, he was considered to be drastically changing the news. The paper looked modern, using four-color newsprint on its front page, something most newspapers did not feature at the time. There was an emphasis on not only writing, but graphics as well, which led to many referred to USAToday as the "McPaper," a reference to the early popularity of the McDonald's food chain.


Big, notable newspapers attacked Neuharth for it. Many said that it was "dumbed down" or a transition towards television news on paper, but Neuharth kept fighting.


He did so while diversifying his newsroom to bring women and people of color onto editorial and reporting staffs (This was in an age where many news staffs and boards were mainly dominated by a male and white population).

Each night, the group would get on a bus and travel to some of the District's most famous sites. On the second night, that was the White House. We spent about 15 minutes or so in front of the President's residence. That particular night saw protestors screaming for the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump, as well as singing songs about administration officials, namely (now former) Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Also on the second night, we traveled to the World War II Memorial and the Washington Monument.

The 2019 Neuharth Scholars of Journalism pose for a photo in front of the White House

On other nights, we explored the Jefferson Memorial, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.


A native of the DMV myself, many of these famous spots are not new to me. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to be able to see these memorials again, proving once and for all that their beauty truly does not whisk away over time. Even in age, when the outside moves fast, the beauty of our nation's history stands still.



Day three looked to be the most exciting on the agenda. We woke up early and boarded the bus for the 20 minute ride up to NBC's studios to watch a live taping of Chuck Todd's Meet The Press. The famous and historical show, which airs on Sunday morning's on NBC, booked two guests that day: Republican Congressman Steve Scalise and 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg. Although both were not studio interviews, it was very interesting to see Chuck Todd's method of questioning these politicians live.


After the taping, Todd spoke to our group for about 20 minutes or so, taking questions from the scholars. I was lucky enough to be chosen to ask a question, which was directed towards his interviews of current administration officials. Immediately, he discussed how interviewing administration officials is different now, considering that many of them deny facts on air. "It's different now," he stated. "Listen, [President Trump] has broken Washington."

"[President Trump] has broken Washington."

Seeing how a show of that magnitude is run is incredibly intriguing. The producers were running around, assuring that every necessary knew the right information. People were constantly handing Todd and other producers papers and "one-sheets" full of information.


Of course, this conference was held just weeks before the first series of Democratic Presidential Debates on NBC, which Todd was, in partnership with a few others, moderating. Therefore, the preparations were on top of Todd's mind. He even told us that there were so many papers flying around the office for debate preparations that he could use them for a doorstop, if he wanted to.

The conference's schedule was set up to cover sessions, panels, speakers, and tour experiences. Very often, they would include a speaker over lunch. We would get our food and start eating, and usually 30 minutes into the lunch, a speaker would give a speech or presentation and then take questions from the scholars.


My favorite speaker from the conference was Charles Haynes. He is the Vice President of the Religious Freedom Center, an organization dedicated to educating the public on religious liberty in regards to the First Amendment. Haynes spoke about how the efforts of students crafted significant change in the world, and that students are very commonly the first to have their First Amendment rights stripped away. "People always ask me, 'do high school students have First Amendment rights?'" he said. "What I tell them is 'well...are they human?'"


“In today’s times, our high school’s are far too often places where the first amendment goes to die.”

Haynes's concerns are echoed across the country. The Student Press Law Center–a non-profit organization aiming to support and promote the First Amendment in schools–publishes news articles whenever high school and college students are in danger of suppression of their First Amendment rights. This includes schools stripping funding from student newspapers and the legal challenges against student journalists. “In today’s times, our high school’s are far too often places where the first amendment goes to die,” Haynes said as he neared the end of his speech.

Charles Haynes of the Religious Freedom Center answers a question after his speech to the Neuharth Scholars of Journalism

Once he opened the floor to questions, I asked him about where our freedom of religion ends. My question was maybe 30 words, but Haynes was able to speak for nearly five minutes about the topic. In my question, I specifically mentioned the landmark Supreme Court Case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which ruled–in that particular situation–a bakery owner reserved the constitutional right to deny his service of making a cake for a gay wedding.


In Haynes's answer, he used a 2015 Utah Law as example to discuss how progress can be made towards allowing for both religious freedom and LGBT rights. Nicknamed the "Utah Compromise," the law protected the LGBT community from discrimination in employment based on their identity or sexual orientation, but still allowed for churches and other religious institutions to maintain their opinions against homosexuality.

Most days held a common theme, with the panelists, speakers, and experiences being related to the theme in some way. Day four's theme was "Fundamentals of Journalism," which explores First Amendment Law, a topic of great interest to me. After lunch, we boarded the bus to head down to the District of Columbia's Federal District Courthouse.


A few students got the opportunity to argue a mock court case that focused on the First Amendment, in front of a real judge. I was honored to be on a team of four scholars selected to serve as the mock trial's lawyers for the case. The mock case pitted a school against a group of students, as was the case in landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The school, in this case, mandated a new dress code that stated that all students may not wear any attire with any message whatsoever. There were no exceptions; a simple Nike or Adidas logo would be in violation of the dress code. This dress code was put in place to address a series of incidents which interrupted the operation of the school, such as teachers not being able to control classrooms.

Of course, as irony would have it, I was one of two students assigned to represent the school's side of the argument (after being on this side, trust me: it's the wrong side of the argument).


Despite my disagreements with the side I was defending, I did my best. That, however, did not stop Judge Royce Lamberth from pushing back on every single one of my points. I was grateful for the opportunity, and Judge Lamberth truly made the experience all the better. In his speech to the scholars afterwards, he even pointed at me and called me the "unlucky" one because he questioned my points with such rigour.


After the arguments, the Judge and I conversed about the recent legislation enacted in Alabama and Missouri, which aims to circumvent the precedent set in landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade. Judge Lamberth stated that he thought enacting that legislation was not a smart move, saying that Robert's Supreme Court will not overthrow Roe's precedent with one case.


In that same conversation, I told him about my hope to someday defend the First Amendment in that very same court. He told me how outstanding that dream was, and he told me of his experience in military and government law. "Well, you are just the sort of person I would love to have clerking for me down the road," he then said while laughing. "Unfortunately, I'll probably be dead by then."

There are, of course, more speakers we heard from, more sites we visited, more tours we experienced, and more panels we listened to. There is simply not enough room in a single story to explain how amazing and beneficial this experience was to me.


I made amazing friends, forging friendships I hope to maintain forever. There is truly nothing more you can ask for than the opportunity of joining a group of intellectual students who care about the same things you do.


I would be remiss if I didn't thank the wonderful staff of the Freedom Forum Institute and the Newseum, who hosted us for the week. Additionally, all of the presenters, speakers, and panelists were so amazing during this week, and there are no words that can describe how thankful I am for their work.


If you are a journalism student and will graduate in 2021, I highly encourage you to apply to next year's conference. You can apply here. Their website explains all of the details about what is required in the application. There is no application fee.


If you teach journalism in high schools, please encourage your students to apply. Your students will love the experience, come home, and thank you for recommending it to them.


Photos courtesy of the Freedom Forum Institute

© 2020 by David Wolfe Bender.

Photos courtesy of the Freedom Forum Institute.