West Virginia Protects Student Press Freedom

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CONTACT: Hillary Davis, Advocacy and Organizing Director, Student Press Law Center hdavis@splc.org | (202) 785-5451

WASHINGTON — The Student Press Law Center, the nation’s leading advocate for student press freedom, hailed the adoption in West Virginia of SB121, the Student Journalist Press Freedom Protection Act. The bill was signed into law by Governor Jim Justice on Thursday, March 23. West Virginia becomes the 17th state to adopt this type of legislation, known nationally as a “New Voices” law. 

The law, sponsored by Senator Mike Azinger, ensures that high school and college student journalists determine the content published in school-sponsored media –– including newspapers and yearbooks –– and protects them from censorship except in narrow, well-defined circumstances. The law also shields student media advisers from professional retaliation for refusing to unlawfully censor their students’ work. The bill takes effect 90 days after passage.

Governor Jim Justice signs the bill on a podium.
The West Virginia legislature passed the Student Journalist Press Freedom Protection Act, which was signed into law by the governor on March 23, 2023.

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The law reverses the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision, which set a vague standard for lawful censorship of student media. The result is the regular silencing of student voices for reasons rooted in some adults’ subjective feelings and school officials desire to prevent “bad” publicity, rather than any concern regarding the quality of the students’ work.  

“For thirty-five years, West Virginia’s student journalists have had to prioritize banality over stories that were important, ethical and true. The Student Press Law Center is thrilled that West Virginia has become the 17th state to restore and protect student press freedom. We thank the West Virginia legislature and Governor Justice for their support of student voices,” SPLC Advocacy and Organizing Director Hillary Davis said. “Most of all, we thank every advocate who made this possible. This law is for student voices, because of student voices, and we are so grateful for every one of them.”

The West Virginia legislature passed the law after current and former student journalists and teachers spent three years advocating for student press freedom in the state, including Kellen Hoard, a recipient of SPLC’s 2022 Courage in Student Journalism Award

“Every state is different, and the New Voices movement will necessarily need to adapt its strategy in each,” Kellen said. “But West Virginia demonstrates a few key lessons: that sheer persistence outweighs opposition, that appeals to common values triumph over political differences, and that finding individual champions—in the legislature, the student body, or elsewhere—is essential.  There is more work to be done around the country, but I am hopeful that West Virginia will serve as an illustrative catalyst for advocates in the legislative sessions to come.”

Morgan Bricker, student media adviser at Weir High School and West Virginia state director for the Journalism Education Association, and her students played an integral role in supporting SB 121.  

“As an adviser, this process and its outcome has been more than inspiring. It was compelling to experience the First Amendment process in real time and in such an impactful way for me just as much as my students. Seeing my students so engaged and determined to advocate for their own rights, bravely writing op-eds and contacting legislators, has been extremely validating. It tells me that they really are listening as I teach them about the First Amendment, press freedom and media law, and it motivates me to continue to improve and develop my skill as an educator,” Bricker said. 

“As the West Virginia State Director for the Journalism Education Association, I am relieved for all of the student journalists and their advisers across the state knowing that they will have license to express themselves more freely without fear of undue censorship or punishment at the whim of administrators,” Bricker continued.

SPLC supports many state-based, student-led coalitions who seek to protect student press freedom with New Voices laws and then to implement those laws once passed, such as in New Jersey. With SB121 in place, SPLC and New Voices advocates in West Virginia will now work to ensure that every West Virginia school understands the new law and the rights of student journalists. 

“Signing S121 is a momentous occasion for student journalism in West Virginia, but it is only the beginning, as we shift to educating students, advisers and administrators so the law has robust effect,” SPLC Acting Executive Director Josh Moore said. “SPLC will also continue to be a vital resource to student journalists and their advisers in West Virginia. When censorship happens, we’ll have their backs.”

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Student Press Law Center: Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has worked to promote, support and defend the First Amendment and freedom of expression rights of student journalists at the high school and college level, and the advisers who support them. Working at the intersection of law, journalism and education, SPLC operates a free, confidential legal hotline as well as public resources. SPLC also provides training, educational resources and support to the grassroots non-partisan New Voices movement, seeking state-based legislative support for student press freedom.  The SPLC is an independent, non-profit 501c(3) organization based in Washington, D.C.