Bills to protect student journalists introduced in Virginia

January 21, 2020

Both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly have bills pending that FIRE supports because they would better protect student journalists from university censorship. 

SB 80 is sponsored by Sen. David W. Marsden in the Senate and HB 36 is sponsored by Del. Chris Hurst and Del. Danica Roem in the House of Delegates. The bills would ensure that school-sponsored media — defined as “any material that is prepared, substantially written, published, or broadcast by a student journalist” at a public middle schools, high schools, and universities — does not face school censorship. The bills are a product of the “New Voices” campaign from the Student Press Law Center. 

The bills are designed to reverse the effects of a Supreme Court ruling, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which allowed school administrators to censor school-sponsored publications if they had “legitimate pedagogical reasons” for doing so. And while Hazelwood was decided in the K-12 context, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit applied the same rationale to college campuses, permitting censorship in that context as well. The bills would override Hazelwood as it applies to middle and high schools, and prevents courts from applying its rationale to students enrolled in public colleges and universities in Virginia.

SB 80 and HB 36 would also provide important protections for student media advisers by ensuring that they could not be “dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, or transferred” for protecting student journalists from school censorship attempts. 

So far, bills to protect student journalists have been enacted in 14 states, according to the Student Press Law Center.

While the bills apply to middle school and high school students, FIRE’s interest in the legislation, per our higher education-centered mission, is on the bills’ applicability to colleges and universities. FIRE supports the bills as they apply to public college campuses and hopes those provisions are enacted by the Virginia legislature. We’ll keep readers updated on the progress of the bills.