AS passionate defenders of the
First Amendment right of
free speech, it may seem puzzling that we also applaud the House Education Committee for amending a bill granting all student journalists in Virginia the same legal protections that professional scribes enjoy to apply only to college students.
The revised bill gives college journalists “the right to exercise freedom of speech and the press in school-sponsored student media, including determining the news, opinion, feature, and advertising content of school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the media is supported financially by the governing board of the institution, supported through the use of campus facilities, or produced in conjunction with a course in which the student is enrolled.”
But the committee, which voted 18–1 to pass the amended version of the bill (HB 36) patroned by Del. Chris Hurst, D–Montgomery, did the right thing by excluding student journalists in middle and high school.
As Del. David Bulova, D–Fairfax, noted in proposing the accepted revision, middle and high school student journalists are “really still learning and growing themselves,” and the job of public school teachers and administrators is to “set parameters” for what should and should not be published.
Tiffany Kopcak, a yearbook adviser at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford and a proponent of the original bill, attended the committee hearing and complained that state legislators did not consider the maturity level of today’s high school students and the fact that they are taught how to report on sensitive topics.
But Stacy Haney, the chief lobbyist for the Virginia School Boards Association who opposed the original language, pointed out that “in the real world, the entity or person that owns the media has a say in what is published in their media.” And they are ultimately responsible for all content.
This is the hard lesson CNN learned last month when it settled a multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuit brought by attorneys for 16-year-old Nicholas Sandmann, a student at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, who was falsely portrayed by the network as the aggressor in a confrontation with Native American Nathan Phillips that went viral during the 2019 March for Life in Washington.
“The CNN accusations are totally and unequivocally false and CNN would have known them to be untrue had it undertaken any reasonable efforts to verify their accuracy before publication of its false and defamatory accusations,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed last March.
When employees of a professional media outlet like CNN defame or libel a private individual like Sandmann, the company is legally responsible for any damages. But local school boards – and ultimately, local taxpayers – would be on the hook if student journalists in middle or high school who were allowed to publish any story they wanted to made a similar mistake. Liability is a real-life lesson that all budding journalists must learn.
That said, it is incumbent on school administrators not to use their veto power to prevent student journalists in middle and high school from reporting on what’s really going on, even if it’s embarrassing to the school’s principal or other public officials.
School administrators should reserve their veto power over student-generated stories to situations in which it is absolutely necessary to intervene. There’s no excuse for covering up legitimate news stories or censoring young journalists simply in order to protect adults from the consequences of their own actions.