Virginia Education Committee guts New Voices legislation with a major amendment, leaving high school journalists unprotected

UPDATE: The Virginia House Education Committee passed an amended version of HB 36 that did not include free speech protections for middle and high school journalists on Monday, Feb. 3. Hillary Davis, Student Press Law Center’s New Voices advocacy and campaign organizer, said the Virginia New Voices coalition hopes the legislature will decide to hold the bill instead of attempting to pass this amended version into law.

The amended bill passed the committee in an 18-1 vote, but the amendment itself was much more divisive with a vote of 10-8. The amendment fundamentally changes the intent of the bill by removing protections for middle and high school students’ free speech and press rights. Under the amended House bill, high school principals, administrators and school boards could continue to practice prior restraint or censorship on school-sponsored media. 

“High school students are the crux of the issue,” Davis said. “They do not have the protections that college students already have and we feel that it’s really important that we protect these students and the advisers from retaliation.”

This is the second year Virginia legislators voted on a bill that protects student journalists from censorship. In 2019, a similar bill failed in the House committee. 

If the bill sponsor, Delegate Chris Hurst, chooses not to progress with a vote, the bill will time out. Advocates can resubmit a bill that protects both high school and college students in January 2021, but it likely won’t include middle school students because of legislators’ opposition, Davis said.

Delegate Chris Hurst stands before the Virginia House Education Committee on Feb. 3. The committee voted to pass an amended version of HB 36 that would strike protecting middle and high school students press freedom rights. As a result, the bill is very likely dead for the 2020 legislation session. (Screenshot taken from Commonwealth of Virginia livestream.)

Three New Voices advocates were present at the hearing, but didn’t get the chance to testify in front of the committee. When Delegate David Bulova proposed an amendment, the committee chose not to hear any testimony. Once the amendment passed, the testimonies from two high school news outlet advisers and a high school student were no longer relevant.

Bulova said administrator oversight was necessary in case news outlets publish stories on “sensitive subjects.” He added that middle and high school press freedom should be decided on the local level.

Hurst agreed to strike middle school from the bill, but continued to push to have high schoolers recognized.

“It’s really important for a free press, and I would extend that to yearbooks and student newspapers at the high school level, to be able to report matters that are of a public interest not only to members of their student body, but also to their communities,” Hurst said. 

Hurst named seven high school news outlets in the state that recently faced backlash from administration or school boards. He said censorship issues have become onerous, and action is necessary. 

Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg, echoed Hurst, but pushed to include middle school, saying student journalism encourages students to become civically engaged.

Tiffany Kopcak, an adviser for Colonial Forge High School yearbook, who was present at the hearing, was disappointed by the result. She says delegates discounted the maturity level of high school students and the training both advisers and students receive to report on sensitive material. 

Delegates proceeded to pass HB 36, including the amendment, in an 18-1 vote.

Final House Education Committee vote count for HB 36. (Screenshot taken from Commonwealth of Virginia livestream.)

Kopcak said “this loss is a chance to educate,” and is determined to press forward. The New Voices coalition will spend the remainder of 2020 lobbying representatives for students’ rights to freedom of the press.

1/29/2020 Subcommittee passes Virginia New Voices bill on Student Press Freedom Day

VIRGINIA — Pratika Katiyar, an 11th grader at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria made the two-hour trek to the state capitol early on a Wednesday morning with her adviser and other students. She testified in Richmond before a Virginia subcommittee in favor of a bill that would protect student journalists like her from censorship. She was one of three students to voice their support for HB 36 on Jan. 29, which also happened to be national Student Press Freedom Day.

Katiyar told a House Education Subcommittee that in October of 2018 a staff writer at her school set out to cover a student who alleged she was unfairly punished for wearing a shirt that showed her shoulders. But the writer never put a word about the incident in the final piece. 

Instead the staffer wrote a general op-ed about how the dress code’s regulations are biased against girls, and didn’t mention the student she had spoken with.

We knew the story was important, but we were too scared to tell it

Katiyar says that was because the reporter was afraid administrators would retaliate against her for putting out a story in TJToday that was critical of school officials. The school does not have a prior review policy and has been supportive of student media, but there was still hesitation on the part of the young journalists.

“We were afraid that the administration would enforce consequences on us,” Katiyar said in a phone interview with the Student Press Law Center. “We knew the story was important, but we were too scared to tell it. Self-censorship isn’t a part of learning to tell important stories, and I want students to be able to have their voices heard.”

Now, Pratika and the other New Voices advocates are one step closer to preventing this kind of  self-censorship — and outright censorship — in Virginia.

HB 36 passed out of the Post-secondary and Higher Education subcommittee by a vote of 4-3. This is the second time a Virginia subcommittee heard a New Voices bill, and the first time it has passed.

Pratika Katiyar, an 11th grader at Thomas Jefferson High School, testified on Jan. 29, 2020 before the Post-secondary and Higher Education committee for HB 36. (Photo pulled from the House of Delegates livestream)

New Voices is a student-driven nonpartisan movement to restore and protect student press rights at the state level. These laws counteract the impact of the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which gave school administrators broad authority to censor student media.

There are currently 14 states that have already passed New Voices legislation into law; the first being California in 1977 and the latest being Washington in 2018.

Margaret Vaillent, former editor of the Madison County High School newspaper, The Mountaineer said her journalism program was shut down in 2011 and her teacher was fired after they published a story about cracks in the school’s windows, possible mold on the ceilings, and alleged inadequate handicapped facilities.

Is that what you think high schoolers should be learning?

“I lost trust in news media in high school where I learned that facts only exist when I use them in a manner approved by authority, when a goodwill effort to create honest conversation is shut down as if it were salacious gossip … Is that what you think high schoolers should be learning?” Vailent asked the subcommittee.

Former Mountaineer editor Margaret Vaillent took the stand to talk about her teacher’s firing in 2011 for publishing an unflattering article. (Photo pulled from the House of Delegates livestream)

Stafford County Superintendent Scott Kizner joined students and advisers in voicing his support for HB 36.

“Freedom of speech for anyone in a journalistic position should not be restricted by those who may be concerned of news that might be controversial, unflattering, or challenging about leadership decisions,” Kizner said.

Protection for advisers

The bill would give student journalists the right to decide what to publish without fear of administrative censorship or retaliation. It also would protect advisors from being retaliated against based on their students’ coverage. 

Tiffany Kopcak, an adviser to Colonial Forge High School’s yearbook testified at the subcommittee hearing. She said in a phone interview with SPLC that she once feared losing her job for allowing her students to publish content about the new Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) club at her school. The principal told Kopcak not to allow the students to publish the GSA piece because it wasn’t a curricular club — but they had gotten approval to cover a number of other non-curricular clubs before.

Kopcak told her students they could publish anyway, and prepared her defense against her bosses in case they retaliated. Thankfully, she said, no one threatened her job.

“I want to teach my students to talk about real stories and real lives, without fear of losing my job,”  Kopcak said.

Colonial Forge High School yearbook adviser Tiffany Kopcak was the first member of the public to address the committee in support of HB 36. (Photo pulled from the House of Delegates livestream)

Opposition to the bill

Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals Lead Lobbyist Elizabeth “Bet” Neale said at the first New Voices bill hearing in January 2019 that student journalists are not “real journalists” because they’re still learning. Neale implied that if the bill passed, administrators wouldn’t have supervision over what students publish.

But Thomas Jefferson High School student media adviser Erinn Harris said students would still have advisers, and providing guidance and support to student journalists is “literally my job.”

Virginia School Boards Association Chief Lobbyist Stacy Haney said last year that student journalists who have concerns with how they’re being treated should go to their local school board to try to change their district’s policy instead of focusing on a statewide law. 

Harris said that while this might help for some students, not all school boards support student press freedom.

“Students’ rights and the quality of their education should not be a matter of luck, or location, or based on who’s sitting in the principal’s chair, but rather based on pedagogical and sound journalistic practices,” Kopcak said during her testimony on Wednesday.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Haney testified against the New Voices bill again: “In the real world, the entity or person that owns the media has a say in what is published in their media.”

But the bill’s primary co-patron and former professional journalist, Delegate Chris Hurst told the committee that this isn’t standard practice in professional media organizations.

“If we’re trying to prepare our students for what it’s really like to be a journalist; the publisher of a newspaper, the owner of a television station does not come into the newsroom and tell you what you shall and shall not report,” Hurst said.

On the same afternoon as subcommittee hearing, there was breaking news concerning Hurst.

On Sunday, Jan. 26, a car driven by Hurst was pulled over when a police officer observed it swerving and moving above the speed limit. After telling the officer he had consumed alcohol at a party, Hurst was administered roadside sobriety tests. He was not charged, according to WDBJ 7 and multiple media outlets. Hurst issued a statement of apology on Jan. 29 separate from the hearing.

Delegate Chris Hurst is a co-patron of HB 36, and a former journalist himself. (Photo pulled from the House of Delegates livestream)

Roadblock in the state Senate

The first hearing for Virginia’s New Voices bill was in January 2019. The bill failed in an Education subcommittee by 5-3 vote. One complaint was that the bill included protections for elementary school students, contending that these students aren’t mature enough to make editorial decisions.

This year, the bill only has protections for middle and high school students. 

Just a few days before this year’s House subcommittee hearing, Senate Bill 80 (a companion bill to HB 36) died in a Senate Education and Health committee hearing.

SPLC’s New Voices Advocacy and Campaign Organizer Hillary Davis said in an interview that if HB 36 passes through the House of Delegates and gets to the Senate, it could still pass. But SB80 was voted down 15 to 1, an indication that passing a New Voices bill through the Senate this year will be challenging.

The next hearing for HB 36 is in front of the full Post-secondary and Higher Education committee Monday, Feb. 3.

Davis said “the students celebrated [the subcommittee vote] by getting to work.” Directly after the hearing, all the students who testified met with the committee members to tell them in detail why they supported the bill.

“I thought today was really incredible,” Davis said. “We had students come from all over who were ready to testify. We are hopeful for Monday, and we know we need to answer some questions ahead of time. The students and SPLC are working hard to ensure we see duplicate results on Monday.”

Correction: A previous version of this story attributed a quote to Erinn Harris that was actually said by Tiffany Kopcak.

SPLC reporter Cameren Boatner can be reached by email at or by calling 202-974-6317. Follow her on Twitter @camerenboatner.

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