SPLC Statement: Virginia HB 36 As Amended Does Not Meaningfully Advance Protections for Student Journalists

The Student Press Law Center is deeply concerned and disappointed by the Virginia House of Delegates’ elimination of essential protections for high school journalists in HB 36.

Two weeks ago, on Student Press Freedom Day, student journalists from across Virginia gathered before a House of Delegates subcommittee in support of New Voices legislation (HB 36). Joined by teachers and administrators, they testified to their experience of censorship, the fear they endured and the self-censorship that comes as a result. 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.

The subcommittee approved HB 36, but five days later the full committee gutted the legislation. Despite the objections of the lead sponsor, Delegate Chris Hurst, the committee voted 10-8 to strip HB 36 of all language protecting high school students and advisers, leaving only language clarifying the existing press freedom rights of Virginia’s college students. The full House of Delegates approved this status quo language just a few days later.

We stand with the high school student journalists in saying this is not enough.

Each and every one of the fourteen states with student press freedom laws protects high school students, because these are the students who face onerous and subjective censorship in the wake of the damaging Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier decision. It is these advisers who face adverse career consequences for defending their students. It is these students who have stood before the legislature to tell their stories. And it is the censorship of these students that undermines public education’s mission to produce critical thinking, civic-minded adults.

Because Virginia lacks a robust student press freedom law, students have limited recourse to tell the truths that matter to their schools. Stories like Kate Karstens’ piece about absenteeism without consequences are censored. When students at Maury High School broadcast the crumbling condition of their school they were censored. When Margaret Vaillant also wrote about the deterioration of the school building she was censored and her program effectively shut down. A Stafford High School yearbook profile of a transgender student was censored because of concerns the student was “too controversial.” High school journalists in Virginia need protection from censorship to be able to tell stories which are important to their communities. By approving a gutted HB 36, Virginia’s House of Delegates gives its stamp of approval to the silencing of these stories.

Reiterating the rights of college journalists to publish freely and without administrative censorship is important, but it only reinforces the status quo. SPLC’s legal hotline works with Virginia college journalists whenever issues arise and we know that censorship at both the college and high school level persists. But among college journalists, that censorship often already violates the policies and norms that govern college student journalism. And — although some courts have disagreed — the discretionary censorship censored by Hazelwood generally does not apply to them. 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. 

Instead, the House of Delegates has sent a clear message to high school students that their voices matter less than the comfort of school administrators, and that the only place they can use these voices is on social media where rumor and conjecture are primary sources and journalistic ethics do not apply. 

Virginia’s high school student journalists believe their schools and their communities deserve better, and the Student Press Law Center stands with them.

Fourteen states have protected the student press — whatever happens with HB 36, unfortunately, Virginia will not become the fifteenth this year as the amended bill does not meaningfully advance the protection of student journalists and only reinforces the status quo.

Read more about the New Voices movement and the Virginia New Voices coalition.