VA Lawmakers Gut New Voices Legislation

Student PressThe Student Press Law Center (SPLC) released a statement expressing their concerns and disappointment with Virginia House of Delegates for removing First Amendment protections for high school students from HB 36. Just two weeks before student journalists and advisors testified on Student Press Freedom Day,

They spoke movingly of the truth and transparency New Voices legislation would bring to their staff — and the benefit that press freedom protections would bring to their community.

Each of them was a high school journalist.

Five days later the House of Delegates committee voted to only retain language protecting Virginia’s college journalists, against protest of Bill sponsor Delegate Chris Hurst. Hurst capitulated to the loss of middle school students from the bill but still tried to persuade the committee to keep First Amendment protection of high school journalists and advisors.

SPLC works closely with students of all ages facing censorship of their work, but acknowledges that universities typically have their own policies in place protecting journalistic freedoms.

College students frequently have recourse to combat this censorship, and while New Voices legislation gives them another tool in their arsenal and would send a clear and uniform message to colleges across Virginia, it also represents little more than the reinforcing the status quo. Virginia should not pat itself on the back as defenders of student journalism without proactively protecting those who are censored the most — high school students and their advisers.

This year’s National Student Press Day sought to show the world what student journalism looks like publicizing stories like

  • In Kansas, when students set out to do a profile on the recently hired principal, they uncovered discrepancies in her reported credentials. When they pressed her, they found her answers evasive. Coached by their advisor to take the work seriously, tried to verify certain facts the new principal provided, like her BFA from the University of Tulsa, only to discover that the University doesn’t offer that degree. The students ran the article, leading to the new principal’s resignation.
  • In Utah and Vermont student journalists broke stories about teacher misconduct, only to be censored by the administration. In the end, the censorship helped these stories become reach audiences nationwide, leading to reversals in the administration’s policies, and New Voice legislation in Vermont.

These are just a few of many stories reported by high school students. As local papers are shuttering or merging, school papers and journalists the only voices some communities have.
The House of Delegates voted 18-1 to pass the bill, but the vote to gut it was very close, 10-8. This is a great reminder that local elections affect our communities constantly. Do you know if your delegate cares about free expression for every voice, not just those that can vote?