State lawmakers kill legislation to protect student journalists

Frank LoMonte, former executive director of the Student Press Law Center and head of the New Voice Initiative, expressed support for protecting student journalists from administrative censorship. Photo by Saffeya Ahmed
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RICHMOND, Va. (CNS) — UPDATE (Jan. 29):

A legislative panel rejected a bill protecting student journalists from administrative censorship on a tie vote Monday.

House Bill 2382, sponsored by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, would have protected free speech for student journalists in public elementary, middle and high schools, as well as public institutions of higher education.

A subcommittee of the House Education Committee deadlocked 3-3 on the bill after hearing testimony from students and faculty advisers from high schools and colleges across the commonwealth.

Kate Carson, a former writer and editor for The Lasso, the student newspaper at George Mason High School in Falls Church, said her school’s administration censored several controversial topics the publication attempted to cover, including bathroom vandalism, absence policy abuse and a sexting scandal.

“As student journalists, we were perfectly positioned to report on these issues and separate fact from rumor,” Carson said. “Instead, The Lasso was censored when we attempted to cover the vandalism and policy abuse. We didn’t even attempt to cover the sexting scandal.”

One teacher told the panel how her students’ paper was shut down and she was removed as adviser after the students published an article about renovating the school.

“We have seen an increasing number of censorship cases in the commonwealth,” Hurst said. Hurst said the bill seeks to reapply the Tinker standard to student free speech, which was established in a 1969 Supreme Court case. This standard requires administrators to have reasons for censoring content, Hurst said.

In 1988, the Tinker standard was overruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which laid out that school administrations have the right to censor school-sponsored media if they wish.

“All this bill does is protect against what we call the ‘making-the-school-look-bad censorship,’ the image-motivated censorship,” said Frank LoMonte, former executive director of the Student Press Law Center and head of the New Voice Initiative, a campaign network for anti-

censorship laws. “Anything a school can stop you from saying on a T-shirt or ball cap, they can stop you from saying in a newspaper.”

Two people voiced concerns with the legislation, saying the protections should not apply to school-sponsored speech or to young student journalists. “We’re not talking about an 18- or a 19-year-old; we’re talking about possible a 14- or 15-year-old writing a story,” said Thomas Smith with the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. “There are many instances in the code where they treat college students and post-secondary students different from secondary students.”

The legislation would have protected “school-sponsored media,” which includes any material “prepared, substantially written, published or broadcast” by student journalists and is distributed or available to the student body. The bill prohibited administrative censorship or disciplinary action unless content:

* Is libelous or slanderous material
* Unjustifiably invades privacy
* Violates federal or state law
* Creates or incites students to create a clear and present danger

If HB 2382 had passed, Virginia would have been the 15th state to provide protections for high school or college journalists. Half of the states that have passed similar legislation to Hurst’s bill did so in the last four years. Five other states introduced bills in 2019 to protect student journalists.

Here is how the House Education subcommittee voted on HB 2382:

01/28/2019 House: Subcommittee failed to recommend reporting (3-Y, 3-N)
YEAS — Davis, Tyler, Bagby — 3.
NAYS — Bell, Richard P., Helsel, Bulova — 3.

__________________

Two delegates, both former journalists, introduced legislation Monday to protect student journalists from censorship and shield reporters from having to disclose confidential sources.

Dels. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, and Danica Roem, D-Prince William, urged the General Assembly to pass such legislation.

“Journalism matters. Facts matter,” Roem said. “We have to get this right.” Sponsored by Roem, House Bill 2250 — introduced for the second year in a row — would protect members of the press from being forced by courts to reveal the identity of anonymous sources.

“The whole point of the shield law is to protect reporters from being jailed for protecting confidential sources,” said Roem, a former reporter with The Prince William Times.

In 1990, Roem’s former editor Brian Karem served jail time for withholding the names of anonymous sources while reporting in Texas.

“He did it to protect his sources’ confidentiality,” Roem said, “and to keep his word.”

Virginia is one of 10 states that does not implement shield protections for members of the press; Roem also pointed out that a federal shield law does not exist. HB 2250 includes a clause requiring sources to be revealed when there is an “imminent threat of bodily harm,” Roem said. In addition to shield laws, Hurst said it’s urgent the legislature also pass HB 2382, which he is sponsoring. The bill would safeguard the work of student journalists from administrative censorship.

If the bill passes, Virginia would join 14 other states in providing protections for high school or college students. Half of the states with current protections for student journalists passed legislation in the last four years.

“Thorough and vetted articles and news stories in student media shouldn’t be subject to unnecessary censorship by administrators,” Hurst said.

Hurst has advocated for measures close to his heart since election to office in 2017. A former anchor and reporter for WDBJ 7 news in Roanoke, Hurst was dating Alison Parker, a fellow WDBJ reporter who was fatally shot on live TV in 2015, along with photojournalist Adam Ward.

The bill would create the freedom for student journalists to publish what they please without fear of administrative retaliation.The institution would be allowed to interfere only if content violates federal or state law, invades privacy unjustifiably, creates clear danger or includes defamatory speech.

While the current legislation focuses on implementing protections for student reporters in public schools and universities, Hurst said he wants the protections to eventually encompass private institutions. He said the legislation was “something that would, as fast as possible, put protections in place for student journalists at our public schools, our public colleges and universities.”

These pieces of legislation come at a time when professional journalists are increasingly targets of violence. A 2018 report by Reporters Without Borders — a nongovernmental organization that promotes journalistic free speech worldwide — found nearly 350 journalists were detained, 80 killed and 60 held hostage by November. More than 250 reporters globally were jailed in 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.