This legislation, sponsored by Sen. Mike Azinger, is modeled after the Student Press Law Center’s New Voices model bill, which is part of its ongoing campaign to enact state-level legislation to protect high school and college student journalists from prior review and censorship by school administrators. With this action, West Virginia positions itself to become the 17th state to enact student press freedoms into law.
Given FIRE’s ongoing efforts through the Student Press Freedom Initiative to defend and protect student journalists across the country, we’ve written in support of similar bills in the past. A key section of the proposed new West Virginia law covering student journalists states:
A student journalist has the right to freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media regardless of whether the media is supported financially by the school, uses the facilities of the school, or is produced in conjunction with a course or class in which the student is enrolled.
However, the bill makes an exception for instances when a student journalist’s speech would face review by school administrators and would withhold its protections for expression that is “obscene, vulgar, or offensive to a reasonable person.”
This provision, which is not found in SPLC’s model bill, could significantly undermine West Virginia legislators’ efforts to protect student journalists from censorship. By including “vulgar or offensive” in the category of speech not protected by the proposed new law, college administrators could punish a student for speech that the First Amendment protects. SPLC submitted written testimony to the Senate Education Committee urging legislators to amend the critical provision in the bill. It wrote:
While the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way in its Fraser decision for high school officials to prohibit ‘less than obscenity,’ such speech — which likely includes vulgarity and other generally offensive speech — is definitely protected at the college level. Censorship of a college student journalist for vulgar or offensive speech would likely be struck down as unconstitutional.
FIRE and SPFI join SPLC in encouraging the West Virginia legislators to amend the specified provision in Senate Bill 121. FIRE and SPFI are thrilled that state legislatures across the country are advancing legislation to protect student journalists from censorship or punishment; however, they ought to ensure they do not allow administrators to restrict constitutionally protected speech in the process.
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