When the Student Journalist Press Freedom Protection Act takes effect in June, West Virginia will become the 17th state to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists and their faculty advisers from unwarranted administration interference, the Student Press Law Center reported.
The law blocks censorship or prior restraint of content created by student journalists in the state’s public high schools, colleges and universities unless the material falls into a specific list of exceptions. The law also offers protection for faculty journalism advisers, who cannot be disciplined or removed for correctly following the provisions of the law.
“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,” said Morgan Bricker, student media adviser at Weir High School and West Virginia state director for the Journalism Education Association, in the SPLC article.
The law outlines five reasons to justify censorship or prior restraint:
Potential libel or slander
An actionable invasion of privacy
Obscene, vulgar, pornographic illicit sexual content
Content that violates federal or state law
Content that “expressly incites students to engage in the commission of an unlawful act or acts, or violate a lawful school policy, or is likely to cause the material and substantial disruption of the operation of the school.”
A key provision, designed to stop censorship based on generalized concerns, is that administrators using the catch-all fifth reason to block student journalists must base their decision on “specific facts, including past experience in the school and current events influencing student behavior, and not on undifferentiated fear or apprehension.”
The movement to codify student journalists’ rights stems from a pair of somewhat contradictory U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
In 1969, Tinker v. Des Moines established students’ free-speech rights when they’re at school. But in 1988, in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the Court gave considerable latitude to high school administrators to restrict student journalists if they felt the reporting didn’t fit the school’s educational mission. Since then, courts have also applied Hazelwood to college journalists.
The West Virginia legislation passed the State Senate 33-0 and the State House 95-1 before being signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice. In an interview with the SPLC, student advocate Kellen Hoard described extensive lobbying that led to passage.
The main key, he said, was to frame the debate as defense of free speech, which resonates with both political parties.
The Free Speech Center newsletter offers a digest of First Amendment and news media-related news every other week. Subscribe for free here: https://bit.ly/3kG9uiJ