Va. bill could restrict student journalists’ ability to survey classmates

VIRGINIA — A bill introduced in the Virginia General Assembly on Wednesday could limit high school student journalists’ ability to survey their classmates.

The bill, which Del. Tony Wilt introduced, would require parents to approve any surveys asking students to provide “sexual information,” mental health information, medical information, student health risk information, information about drug use and other topics the school board deems “sensitive.”

“If anyone is giving the students a survey of that nature, an attempt has to be made to notify the parents,” said Wilt, a Republican.

Kelly Furnas, the executive director of the Journalism Education Association, said the bill’s vague language is concerning because it does not specify if it applies to students “or just employees of the school.”

“But you can certainly see how easily a school board might interpret it in the broadest sense,” Furnas said.

The bill does not mention student-administered surveys. However, Wilt said the statute is meant to address the survey’s content, not its origin.

“My big thing with this is that parents know what their students are being asked,” Wilt said.

Furnas said students and parents have a right to privacy when it comes to sensitive topics, such as sex and medical information, but communities deserve to know about schools’ “risky behavior.” Anonymous surveys, he said, are often the best way to accurately report on sensitive issues because students would be more open if they knew they wouldn’t be identified.

“Student journalists are in a prime position to shine a light on that issue,” Furnas said. “If we restrict students’ abilities to use this a reporting method, then we are almost encouraging them to report more on anecdotes and rumor and innuendo, and I don’t think that’s the type reporting that we want communities making decisions based off of.”

The bill would require schools to notify parents about surveys through an electronic notification system and in writing at least 30 days before they are administered. The notice would disclose the type of questions being asked and the survey’s purpose. The survey would also be available for parental inspection before being handed out to students.

Wilt proposed similar legislation last year but it died in committee. Fourteen states have laws to regulate surveys in schools. Additionally, the federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment requires schools to receive parental consent before requiring students to participate in Department of Education-funded surveys about political affiliation, illegal behavior, income and other topics. Unlike the Virginia bill, federal law exempts voluntary, anonymous surveys.

Several state laws, including in Arkansas and California, say surveys conducted at school about sensitive topics require parental approval but do not mention whether surveys from students are included.

But laws in several states are aimed only at school-sponsored surveys. Colorado’s law, for example, exempts student journalists from the content restrictions.

“On the most basic level, journalism is about gathering information,” Furnas said, “and anytime the government codifies the law that restricts journalists’ ability to do that, we should at the very least be raising an eyebrow.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email or at (202) 478-1926.