Del. Chris Hurst’s bill ensuring the freedom of speech to student journalists has passed both houses of the General Assembly, but still faces complications in route to becoming law. Meanwhile, advocates say the bill doesn’t do enough for student journalists who need it most.
On Tuesday, the Virginia state Senate passed a bill that would protect the rights of student journalists. The bill, which was originally introduced by Twelfth District Del. Chris Hurst (D- Montgomery), has had a complicated path to passage. And despite the fact that it has now passed both houses of the General Assembly, it’s still got some hurdles left to clear before it can become a law.
The bill’s roots trace all the way back to the last century, beginning with the Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in the case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. This ruling, which stated that the work of a student journalist could be censored if a school administrator had “legitimate pedagogical reasons” for the censorship, has in reality paved the way for frequent silencing of the work of student journalists.
For Delegate Hurst, this is an unacceptable situation. “For too long, articles concerning subjects that are worthwhile and newsworthy have been blocked by those in power for less than legitimate reasons,” Hurst told Capital News Service in January. “This legislation is important because it restores basic protections for student journalists throughout Virginia from unnecessary censorship by administrators.”
His bill, which was initially introduced in late 2019, before this General Assembly session even began, would specify that student journalists at public colleges in the state of Virginia have the rights of freedom of speech and of the press, and are free to determine “the news, opinion, feature, and advertising content” of the publications they create, even if those publications are financially supported by their school.
The bill is part of a historic movement by state governments around the country to create laws protect the free speech of student journalists. As of 2020, 14 other states have enacted similar laws.
While the bill originally protected journalists at all educational levels, the amended version that passed the House of Delegates focuses solely on student journalists at the college level. However, for some advocates who originally supported the bill, this is not enough.
“High school students are the crux of the issue,” Student Press Law Center advocate and campaign organizer Hillary Davis said in a statement. “They do not have the protections that college students already have and we feel that it’s really important that we protect these students and the advisers from retaliation.”
Delegate Hurst agreed, and said as much during a Virginia House Education Committee hearing on February 3. “It’s really important for a free press, and I would extend that to yearbooks and student newspapers at the high school level, to be able to report matters that are of a public interest not only to members of their student body but also to their communities,” Hurst said at the hearing, as reported by Student Press Law Center.
Even the removal of all student journalists below college level from the bill’s protection, a move that disheartened advocates, may not be enough to get HB 36 passed into law this year. While it remains alive at this point, the version that passed the Senate earlier this week featured amendments that the House almost unanimously rejected. At this point, only a few days remain for the two houses of the General Assembly to come to an agreement on the bill’s final form before the legislative session adjourns on March 7.
“Far too many student journalists have been censored by image-conscious school administrators or intimidated to self-censor or not report on ‘controversial’ topics that matter to their peers and communities,” Student Press Law Center Executive Director Hadar Harris said in a statement. “It is important that we stand up nationally to say, ‘No more!’”