One of the greatest freedoms that Americans enjoy was born in Virginia 243 years ago, but still is not fully shared with the state’s high school and college students.
Freedom of the press and free speech rights drafted in 1776 as part of the Virginia Declaration of Rights later were incorporated in the nation’s First Amendment to the Constitution and were recognized as necessary in the defense of liberty.
Yet Virginia students who report in high school and college newspapers do not enjoy the same freedom from censorship as most Americans.
School officials who dislike unflattering, embarrassing or sensitive investigative stories proposed for publication in the student press too often spike stories or punish faculty sponsors of high school papers.
That is why Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, is reviving a bill he first sponsored in January promoting freedom of speech and of the press for students in Virginia’s public schools and colleges.
Hurst, 32, is a journalist first elected to the House of Delegates in 2017. He worked as a Roanoke TV reporter and anchor; his girlfriend was shot and killed in an on-air murder by a former co-worker at the station where the couple worked.
He points to abuses of press censorship as reasons that Virginia needs a law protecting the rights of student journalists.
In Madison County eight years ago, the faculty advisor to the Madison County High School Mountaineer was removed after students wrote an editorial that criticized conditions in the school.
Hurst’s measure would prevent that kind of retaliation and protect students’ rights to publish true and well-vetted facts and opinions.
The student editorial had pointed out safety issues and other problems at the school, such as possible mold and lack of accessibility for the disabled.
“Some of the classrooms have cracked windows and the possibility of mold in the ceilings,” the editorial stated. “If we were to be faced with an intruder in the school, the classrooms in the older sections of the school do not have panic buttons that could be pressed for help.
“Our school is far from able to meet the requirements for the handicapped and disabled,” it stated.
A separate article in the student newspaper outlined changes to the school’s science curriculum.
The school’s principal tried to block publication and recall the issue, claiming it contained an error, but it was published.
After the principal and the county’s school superintendent objected to the issue, the journalism and English teacher who had been faculty advisor to the paper was taken off that job and reassigned to another position. She resigned instead and moved to a teaching job in another school system.
Madison County was far from alone in ham-handed censorship attempts. Even at the university level, censorship has flourished and good journalism has been punished.
At the University of Mary Washington, the student newspaper The Blue and Gray Press had its funding stripped just over a year ago in a dispute over content. A student-run finance committee later reversed that decision.
In an older case, The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia decided in the late 1970s to forego university funding rather than submit to censorship.
Hurst’s bill has been picking up bipartisan support and outside endorsements since the first version of it was left in committee in February.
“We didn’t know how much of a groundswell of support we were going to get for it,” the delegate said after vowing to reintroduce the measure for the next General Assembly session.
Educators support it as a way to teach responsible journalism and civic engagement in schools across the state.
Fourteen other states have passed similar legislation, Hurst said. He said he introduced the bill at the request of a James Madison University journalism professor.
National and state press groups and civic education activists are building support for Hurst’s second try at passage for the measure.
“Our country needs trained and qualified journalists now more than ever,” Hurst said Aug. 20 when asked why he sees a need for the press freedom measure.
“Most reporters hone their skills as students. We need to protect their rights as journalists to make sure they develop into trustworthy reporters.”
The measure would encourage student journalists to investigate problems and controversial issues instead of being steered away by censorship. It also would allow teachers who serve as faculty advisors the freedom to oversee and sponsor real journalism in school papers without fearing retaliation for legitimate inquiries and informed opinions.
“This bill would empower students to explore careers in journalism and help hold institutions accountable,” Hurst said.
Opponents, including some school administrators, have cited worries that students would be free to practice reckless reporting, but the bill’s sponsor insisted that journalistic “industry standard editorial oversight could be codified to protect schools from reckless speech.
“I think there is a lot of misinformation about what the bill does and doesn’t do. This still allows for editing and oversight when necessary so administrators can operate schools safely,” he said.
“It’s our goal to help educate all stakeholders so some misconceptions can be cleared up,” Hurst added.
Del. Danica Roem, a fellow journalist from Northern Virginia, and 10 other state legislators have signed on to help push the bill to passage in six months to give student journalists true First Amendment rights and responsibilities.