Protecting student journalism

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    A legislative panel rejected a bill protecting student journalists from administrative censorship on a tie vote Monday. That was unfortunate.
    In a Capital News Service story by Saffeya Ahmed, House Bill 2382, sponsored by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, would have protected free speech for student journalists in public elementary, middle and high schools, as well as public institutions of higher education.
    A subcommittee of the House Education Committee deadlocked 3-3 on the bill after hearing testimony from students and faculty advisers from high schools and colleges across the commonwealth.
    That protection wouldn’t have meant they could publish anything. The bill would have required the students to follow acceptable journalistic standards. By killing the bill, however, the subcommittee dealt a blow to student journalists seeking to produce investigative material that could expose issues within the school setting.
    According to the CNS story, Kate Carson, a former writer and editor for The Lasso, the student newspaper at George Mason High School in Falls Church, said her school’s administration censored several controversial topics the publication attempted to cover, including bathroom vandalism, absence policy abuse and a sexting scandal.
    “As student journalists, we were perfectly positioned to report on these issues and separate fact from rumor,” the story quoted Carson as stating. “Instead, The Lasso was censored when we attempted to cover the vandalism and policy abuse. We didn’t even attempt to cover the sexting scandal.”
    One teacher told the panel how her students’ paper was shut down and she was removed as adviser after the students published an article about renovating the school.
    “We have seen an increasing number of censorship cases in the commonwealth,” Hurst said in the CNS story. Hurst said the bill seeks to reapply the Tinker standard to student free speech, which was established in a 1969 Supreme Court case. This standard requires administrators to have reasons for censoring content, Hurst said.
    In 1988, the Tinker standard was overruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which laid out that school administrations have the right to censor school-sponsored media if they wish, the CNS story pointed out.
    Those opposed to the bill voiced objections stating that the protections should not apply to school-sponsored speech or to young student journalists.
    According to the CNS story, the legislation would have protected “school-sponsored media,” which includes any material “prepared, substantially written, published or broadcast” by student journalists and is distributed or available to the student body. The bill prohibited administrative censorship or disciplinary action unless content:
• Is libelous or slanderous material;
• Unjustifiably invades privacy;
• Violates federal or state law; or
• Creates or incites students to create a clear and present danger.
    If HB 2382 had passed, Virginia would have been the 15th state to provide protections for high school or college journalists, the CNS story noted. Unfortunately our legislators failed to help lead the way to protect journalists in the schools.
    At this time when journalism is under attack, it’s more important than  ever to make sure journalists—even student journalists—can practice their craft as a watchman over government and its leaders.