Student Plaintiffs in R.I. Civics Education Case to Receive 2020 Citizenship Award

Providence Public School Students Demanding State Provide Skills Needed to Engage in Political Process

Students, parents and lawyers shouting “civics!” after a hearing in federal court on Dec. 5, 2019, in Providence.

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A group of Providence students fighting for more civics education in public schools will receive the New England First Amendment Coalition’s 2020 Antonia Orfield Citizenship Award.

The Citizenship Award is given to New Englanders who have fought for information crucial to the public’s understanding of its community or what its government is doing — or not doing — on its behalf.

The students will be honored at NEFAC’s 10th annual awards luncheon. The luncheon is 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. on Feb. 7 at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel. Tickets can be purchased here.

A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, will be honored with the Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award. Hearst Connecticut Media Group will received the Michael Donoghue Freedom of Information Award.

The student honorees filed a federal lawsuit in November 2018 against Rhode Island state officials — including the governor, legislative leaders and the education commissioner — arguing that the state is failing to provide the civics education they need to be engaged citizens. Arguments began last December.

This lack of education, they argued, violates their rights under the U.S. Constitution. It deprives them of the knowledge necessary to “function productively as civic participants” and leaves them without “the basic minimal skills necessary for the enjoyment of the rights of speech and of full participation in the political process.”

After decades of schools throughout the country neglecting civics education, according to the lawsuit, a 2014 national study showed only 23 percent of eighth graders reaching the “proficiency” level. Locally, Rhode Island has failed to adopt and implement proven practices to help students develop civics knowledge and skills, the students argued.

Aleita Cook, the lead plaintiff in the case, told The New York Times that she wants Rhode Island public schools to improve for the sake of her siblings.

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to know,” she said. “We’re hoping we win this lawsuit and change it to where my younger brothers can have a really good education, and go into adulthood knowing how to vote, how to do taxes, and learning basic things that you should know going into the real world.”

WBUR is the luncheon’s primary sponsor.

Other sponsors, table hosts and supporters include Boston University, Hearst Connecticut Media Group, The Boston Globe, Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, Northeastern University, Boston 25 News, The Day, Central Connecticut State University, WCVB Boston, Thomas Fiedler, University of Connecticut, University of New Hampshire and Emerson College.

The New England First Amendment Awards luncheon is part of the New England Newspaper & Press Association’s winter convention. Students of journalism departments that purchase tables to the luncheon receive free registration to the convention. Learn more.

Previous recipients of the Citizenship Award are David Saad (2019); the Hyde Square Task Force (2018); Donna Green (2017); Michael Champa (2016); Harriet Cady (2015); Kit Savage (2014); and David Lang (2013).

NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.

Major Supporters of NEFAC include Hearst Connecticut Media Group, The Boston Globe, Paul and Ann Sagan, The Robertson Foundation, WBUR and Boston University.