Editorial: Students Journalists’ First Amendment Rights Must Be Upheld

In Virginia, student journalism remains threatened by censorship by school administrations


National Archives and Records Administration

By the First Amendment, freedom of speech should be guaranteed, but for students, that isn’t necessarily the case.

In a pivotal 1988 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that school administrations can censor content published by student journalism programs in cases “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” The 5-3 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier ruling has set the standard for student journalists in Virginia, subjecting content for review prior to publication. In fact, the LCPS Students Rights and Responsibilities handbook mandates it. With the threat of censorship, there is no true freedom of the press. 

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, censorship can occur as prior review, prior restraint, funding denial, and the firing of advisers.

During the 2020 legislative session, Virginia Dels. Chris Hurst and Danica Roem, both former journalists, introduced a version of “New Voices” legislation to the House of Delegates. New Voices, a grassroots arm of the Student Press Law Center, has contributed to the introduction of legislation to counteract the Hazelwood ruling in fourteen other states, according to the SPLC.

HB 36, if passed, would guarantee First Amendment rights to students in school-sponsored programs, regardless of the school board’s financial support of such programs. 

It is critical that student journalists’ rights be protected by law. The looming threat of content moderation defeats the purpose of journalism, which is to hold institutions accountable to the truth. 

“We can’t have teenage reporters being treated like PR outlets by the administration, ” Roem said to the Washington Post. “That helps exactly no one.”

In Norfolk, Maury High School students filmed a report on their school’s deteriorating state. Administrators ordered that the story be removed. In Falls Church, administrators struck down a report on chronic absenteeism at George Mason High School. 

Without the guarantee of complete press freedom, the threat of censorship is cast upon the invaluable fourth estate, and now students must stand up to it. The state of Virginia has the opportunity to restore value to the First Amendment after failing student journalists for years and to empower students to stand up for their rights with HB 36. 

It is not student journalists’ role to protect the reputation of a school or governing body, but rather to learn the fundamentals of journalism and use them to report the truth. When filters stand between substantial reporting and the public, everyone loses. 

The Editorial Staff of The Blaze stands in full support of the passage of New Voices legislation. It is student journalists’ responsibility to tell the student body and their community the unfettered truth, despite its ugliness, without running the risk of having such stories wrongly censored by those who don’t want them told.