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3 Tucson students named national 'free press' essay finalists

Students stood out in explaining 'Why a free press matters in a democracy'

Students from the Tucson area were named as finalists at all three levels of the National Student Essay Competition for their entries about the importance of a free press.

Daisy Determan, a 7th grader at Basis North Tucson, Josie Decker, a junior at Catalina Foothills High School, and A.Z. Chance Martinez of Pima Community College were chosen from among more than 200 semi-finalists across the country by a panel of national judges.

They submitted essays to the competition, sponsored in Southern Arizona by TucsonSentinel.com, on the topic of the free press and the importance of the 1st Amendment. The top prize is a four-year college scholarship and $15,000 in cash awards. The public can also vote on a "popular choice" winner who will receive $1,000 from the competition's organizers.

"I was totally surprised to find out I was a finalist and I just feel grateful I had the opportunity to participate," Determan said. "It was an interesting topic and I learned a lot doing the research for my essay."

"I'm honored and thrilled to have been selected as a finalist," Decker said. "This was an excellent chance for me to share my opinions (and hopefully get some scholarship money out of them!). I thank the judges and the Tucson Sentinel for this wonderful opportunity to further my career in journalism."

"I am very, very much surprised," Martinez said. "This was my first time entering a competition of this kind, and it was surreal to see my writing picked among so many others to be a finalist. So even if I don't win, I am enthused to even have been considered."

Tapped as the top essayists from the area by the Sentinel, the three had their thoughts on the subject reviewed by judges at the national level.

Now, they'll again be reviewed by a group of 16 experts.

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Martinez faces four other students at the college level. Decker is up against five other entrants in the high school category, while Determan also faces five other students in the middle school category.

The judges naming the top essayists are:

  • Chair: Philip G. McCarthey. Trustee, McCarthey Family Foundation
  • Robert Austin. Education Specialist, Utah State Office of Education
  • Richard Badenhausen. Honors College Dean, Westminster College
  • Angelina Beitia. Development Director, League of Women Voters of Utah
  • Leslie Francis. Emery Distinguished Professor of Law and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, University of Utah
  • Jodi Graham. Executive Director, Utah Humanities
  • Heidi Legg. Host of SWING STATE podcast, founder of TheEditorial.com, media theorist
  • Thomas A. Lund. Professor, College Of Law, University of Utah
  • Mark Matheson. Professor, English, University of Utah
  • Chris Matthews. Author, journalist, hosted "Hardball," lecturer at Fulbright University
  • Carmen Nobel. Program Director, Journalist's Resource, Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy
  • Bill Plante. Veteran journalist and former CBS News Senior White House Correspondent
  • David Plazas. Director of Opinion and Engagement, The Tennessean
  • Marjorie Pritchard. Op Ed Page Editor, Boston Globe
  • Noella Sudbury, J.D., Founder of Sudbury Consulting
  • Sylvia Torti. Honors College Dean, University of Utah

The competition, which had a deadline in April, was open to students from grade 6 through college.

The competition offers students in grades 6 through 8, grades 9 through 12, and those at universities and colleges an opportunity to reflect on the importance of a free press and to vie for $15,000 in cash awards from the Boston Globe Foundation and a full, four-year scholarship (current total value: $152,000) at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

A "popular choice" winner, chosen by the public, will receive a $1,000 prize. All of the essays by the national finalists can be read online, with readers able to cast their vote for the best student writing.

With many students at home, studying online, "the contest is a great way to consider the crucial role the press is playing during this crisis while competing for significant awards," said Mary Kay Lazarus, director of the National Student Essay Competition.

TucsonSentinel.com joined with the McCarthey Family Foundation, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and media outlets from around the country, and hosted the essay contest in Southern Arizona.

Essays are being judged on originality and thoughtfulness in addressing the topic of "Why a free press matters in a democracy."

The cash awards and scholarship are scheduled to be presented at the 15th Annual McCarthey Family Foundation Lecture Series: In Praise of Independent Journalism, on Nov. 7 in Salt Lake City.

The national winners will be announced in July.

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"Students now at home across the country know all too well how quickly circumstances can change. At a time when journalists are taking great risks to cover the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. and abroad, the Committee to Protect Journalists is proud to support this timely national student essay competition designed to highlight precisely why the free press is so essential," said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director for the journalism group.

The competition aims not only to cultivate an informed and enlightened public but also to encourage an understanding of the 1st Amendment that strengthens freedom of the press and rebuilds trust.

"We believe there is no more important time than now to focus conversation and critical reflection on understanding the crucial relationships among the1st  Amendment, a free press, and the foundations of democracy," Lazarus said.

The honorary advisory committee for the national contest includes Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer-winning presidential biographer Jon Meacham, political scientist Norman Orenstein, Harvard Law Prof. Laurence Tribe, inaugural Jamal Khashoggi fellow Hala Al-Dosari, and many others.

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Josie Decker (left) and Daisy Determan were among the top student essayists in the country.