Who are the Free Spirits?

Courtesy of the Newseum Institute
Copies of the student publications of each Free Spirit were put on display, representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Rachel Lyons, Magazine Editor-in-Chief

Who are the Free Spirits?

Once a year, in mid-June, 51 students migrate to the nation’s capital. The students who make this pilgrimage of sorts are self-proclaimed Free Spirits. This ritual baffles unsuspecting D.C. natives and skeptic onlookers who question the nature of the individuals and wonder: Who are the Free Spirits?

Some speculate that the free spirits are peace loving, barefoot flowerchildren. Some swear that they are just high school journalists. Others question their existence alltogether claiming they are simply phantoms––another one of the media’s illusions.

In order to learn more about the students myself, I dove into their culture by applying to be a part of the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference and becoming a Free Spirit myself. The 50 other participants welcomed me into their family, and I was able to gain an inside look at the life of the Free Spirits for a week. These were my findings:

The First Amendment is very important to the Free Spirits.

The First Amendment could be considered the doctrine of the students of the Al Neuharth Conference. This integral part of the Free Spirit culture was memorized, analyzed, praised, debated, and sung about many times throughout my week in Washington, D.C.. In order to truly understand the student journalists, one must first understand the first amendment and its promises, the freedom of religion, speech, press and the right to petition and assemble. I cannot stress this enough.

The Free Spirits love to learn.

From Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd to Freedom Riders Dr. Earnest “Rip” Patton and Joan Mulholland, the students who attend the annual conference love listening to the wisdom of others and expanding their knowledge on anything and everything. After more than 20 guest speakers and panelists, the students were still eager to ask more questions and hear more insight. The constant pursuit of information, through their peers, teachers, or the news is a staple in Free Spirit society.

Journalism is a common passion among the Free Spirits.

It should be obvious that journalism is an important part of the journalism conference. However, this important piece of the puzzle that is the family of Free Spirits cannot be overlooked. The students who attended the conference with me in 2015 were, as far as I observed, the best and brightest young journalists in the country, including writers, editors, photographers, and videographers. In addition to managing and producing the news publications of their various high schools, they also appreciated the work of others. A common icebreaker was: “What is you paper like and what is your position?” This question was always followed by a long and meaningful conversation between students who listened intently and, like true journalists, vigorously took notes on how to improve their schools’ publications.

The Free Spirits respect, appreciate, and are inspired by Al Neuharth

The founder of USA Today, the Freedom Forum, and the Newseum, Al Neuharth, resembles a chief or prophet to the Free Spirits. In preparation for the trip to D.C., the journalists read about their leader and develop a respect for his determination and successful career in journalism. At the conference, the respect becomes something deeper to the students as they learn to fully appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity made possible to them by the ingenuity of Neuharth. Finally, the Free Spirits take inspiration from Neuharth’s wise words. After attending the conference myself, I too feel huge gratitude to Neuharth for the priceless experiences I gained from my trip.

There is no true definition of a Free Spirit.

After a week of National monuments, good food, panels, museums, journalism, debunking state stereotypes, and bus rides with the Free Spirits, I cannot form a single definition for a Free Spirit. I cannot fully express the true culture of the students who meet in Washington, D.C. once a year to an outsider. The Free Spirits are many things. They are competitive yet supportive, smart yet eager to learn more, leaders and followers, news-makers and news-readers. They are both inspiring and inspired. They are pretty nerdy. The only way to understand them is to become one of them.