House bill protecting student journalists advances, Senate bill tabled

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By Jeffrey Knight, Capital News Service 

RICHMOND, Va. – Students, faculty and advocates lined up at the podium Wednesday to voice support and concern for a bill that would extend free speech protection to student journalists. Some students traveled from Northern Virginia and Culpeper to snag a spot in the crowded House subcommittee room in support of First Amendment rights and to meet with legislators on National Student Press Freedom Day. 

House Bill 36, patroned by former WDBJ journalist Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, advanced out of subcommittee on a 5-3 vote. The bill grants student journalists in school-sponsored media at public middle, high and higher education institutions the right to exercise freedom of speech and the press. The bill also protects advisers working with the student journalists. 

Hurst’s bill would allow schools to intervene and exercise restraint only in situations of slander, libel, privacy, danger or violations of federal or state law. 

“We’ve been very lucky,” said Joseph Kubicki, a senior at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford. “Our current principal, school board and superintendent have been very supportive of the student press.” 

Margaret Vaillant, former student and editor in chief of Madison County High School’s newspaper, shared her reasons for supporting the bill. 

“The lesson I learned as a high school newspaper editor is that facts only matter when it’s not embarrassing to the people in charge,” Vaillant said at the podium. 

Vaillant wrote an editorial in 2011 about the disrepair of Madison County High School’s facilities, which she said led to the newspaper adviser’s ouster.  

Stacy Haney, chief lobbyist of the Virginia School Boards Association, voiced opposition to the bill.

 “I want to point out to the committee that this legislation also applies to students who are in middle school,” Haney said. “I ask that you think about the maturity level and where we need to be with middle school students.”

Haney referenced the landmark 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines which allows students First Amendment rights as long as it does not disrupt learning. 

“Tinker already applies,” said Haney. “Student are protected in their speech under the Tinker standard.”  

 Still, some public school boards have been able to censor school-sponsored student media.

Last year, the Frederick County School Board approved a policy that designates the principal of the school as the editor of student publications. The board declared that school publications must have “curriculum approved by the school board” and are not “intended to provide a public forum for students or the general public.”

Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, commended student journalists for their work.

“I think student journalists play the same role that professional journalists play and that is to hold people in power accountable and to make sure that tax dollars get spent the way they should,” Edwards said in a phone interview.

She added that middle and high school student journalists “are more mature than we probably give them credit for.” The maturity level of middle and high school student journalists was a major opposition point during the meeting. 

The bill is similar to several across the country known as “New Voices” bills that aim to protect student media from censorship. New Voices is a student-led grassroots movement that aims to negate the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier which ruled that schools may censor student media to an extent. 

Currently 14 states have passed New Voices legislation and 11 have bills in motion, according to the Student Press Law Center.

Senate Bill 80, a companion bill, patroned by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, was recently tabled to the 2021 session in a 1-13 vote.

Hurst was optimistic his bill will move forward during this session. He first introduced the bill in the 2019 session with co-patron Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, but the bill died in a subcommittee vote, 3-5. 

“I think the fate of this bill will be good,” said Hurst. “The General Assembly will see that this is an important provision to put into our code to protect journalists whether you are in high school, college or a professional.”

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