Protect student journalists’ rights

New Voices bill must be passed upon reintroduction


Fired for defending constitutional rights. Quitting for fear of being punished. Forced to hide the truth from the public. In schools across Virginia, student journalists and their advisers are hindered by censorship and forced to present a false reality that harms schools and their surrounding communities.

Across student media platforms, school boards and administrations are able to act irresponsibly but are protected by Virginia law. They make students conform to their values at the cost of First Amendment rights.

Virginia House Bill 2382, known as the New Voices bill, provided measures to solve this issue but failed to make it out of committee. Similar legislation has been passed in over a dozen states. To protect both students and teachers, this legislation must be passed upon its reintroduction next year.

By exploiting Supreme Court precedents, school administrations can distort student media to portray their schools in a positive light. Student media advisers can be fired or reassigned for not supporting the agenda of administrators.

Current Marshall High School newspaper adviser Sam Hedenberg was dismissed from Mount Vernon High School in FCPS after fighting for his students’ right to publish a story in their school’s yearbook.

The journalists explored the life of a teen mom at the school and included photos of the pregnant student in their article. The story was challenged by administrators. For refusing to tell the staff to cut the article from the publication, Hedenberg was asked to leave.

“The biggest problem is when administrators go too far and start impressing their own social or political beliefs into their decisions,” Hedenberg said. “I’m a good person; I work hard; I know what I’m doing. [Had this legislation been put in place in 2016] it would have prevented my students and me from going through the heartache of hiring a lawyer to defend ourselves and our right to the truth.”

Censoring content like this threatens the public’s ability to obtain important information, a cornerstone of our democracy. As journalism does in any society, student media provides checks on school issues.

Investigative journalism at McLean has provided students with opportunities to learn the inner workings of our community and contact high profile officials. The Highlander’s reporting on vaping at McLean was featured on local news stations and alerted people to an epidemic sweeping through FCPS. Students have analyzed the effects national issues have at McLean, including transgender awareness, gun control and race issues.

“It’s good to keep the public aware of things that are going on in their school,” said senior Matt Hutchison, McLean’s yearbook editor-in chief. “We’re very honest and open in how we report. We tend to cover a lot of the stories that wouldn’t have otherwise been covered.”

Globally, professional journalists reporting on key issues analogous with those covered by student media are in more danger than they have been in 10 years, according to The Guardian. Oppression of honest and relevant reporting is beginning in middle and high schools, hindering the growth of student journalists. By not supporting New Voices legislation, delegates and administrators stand for violence and the abolishment of democratic institutions around the world.

It is unjustifiable that students, who have not even entered the realm of professional journalism, already feel threatened because of their works’ content.
After the incident at Mount Vernon High School, staffers dropped out of their yearbook class for fear of getting in trouble. New Voices would eradicate such fears.

“The new bill [will] hopefully…increase the ability for young journalists to hone their craft and to decide whether or not they want to pursue [journalism] professionally or in college. That will be of a huge service to the Commonwealth,” Delegate Chris Hurst said in an interview with The Highlander. Hurst is a former journalist and was the chief patron of New Voices.

Education subcommittee members criticized New Voices for fostering the distribution of inappropriate content. But this claim ignores New Voice’s purpose. The bill’s goal is not to eradicate censorship but to place trust in advisers—paid experts in responsible and ethical journalism.

“If there are individual principals, administrators or school board members who had been onerous or egregious in their censorship in recent years, I think it would give them great pause as whether or not to continue that censorship into the future,” Hurst said.

Officials must overcome their fears of giving student journalists their First Amendment rights by passing this bill.

“[In Virginia] we empower students to learn how to work underneath cars… In college, we give them blow torches, and we give them lathes,” Hurst said. “So why should we be afraid of them having a pen?”

Contact your district delegate and tell them to support the New Voices legislation when it is reintroduced next year.