Lawmakers kill legislation to protect student journalists

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    By Saffeya Ahmed/ Capital News Service

    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.