PRESS RELEASE: Virginia expands college press freedom protections


Contact: Hillary Davis, New Voices Advocacy and Campaign Organizer

Governor Ralph Northam has signed legislation codifying press freedom protections for student journalists at colleges and universities and protecting college media advisers from retaliation for refusing to infringe upon those protections.

Sponsored by Delegate Chris Hurst, HB36 ensures that student journalists at Virginia’s public colleges determine the news and opinion content of student media, and cannot be censored except in certain limited circumstances dealing with the health and safety of the school. The legislation further prohibits retaliation against student media advisers who refuse to censor student journalists in accordance with the law.

In a letter to Governor Northam in support of the legislation, the Student Press Law Center noted that while courts have generally held that the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision that allows some censorship of high school student journalists does not apply to college students, college student journalists nevertheless report regular censorship or pressure by school administrators to produce only media that reflects well on the school. When students push back against censorship, it is often their advisers who pay a heavy professional price in the form of suspension, reassignment or termination. 

SPLC Executive Director Hadar Harris said: “HB36 adds an important protection for student journalists in Virginia and recognizes the needs to protect the rights of student journalists and their advisers. At moments like this, student journalists are on the frontline, reporting on stories of vital importance to the community as schools and colleges close, and college students don’t always know what awaits them upon graduation. Being able to freely report those stories is important not only for the community, but for the historical record they are creating. HB36 paves the way for additional protections to be adopted next year which will support and protect high school student journalists and their important contributions.”

In its letter to the governor, SPLC urged Virginia consider HB36 only the start of their work on student press freedom. SPLC noted that: “It is Virginia’s high school students who bear the brunt of Hazelwood censorship and whose award-winning teachers are reassigned or fired for refusing to shut their students down, and who have been testifying before the legislature for years asking for the restoration of their press rights. Virginia will be the only state that protects only the rights of college students. We hope that Virginia will rectify that next year and pass legislation restoring and protecting the press freedom of Virginia’s high school students.”

The legislation goes into effect July 1.