by Delegates Chris Hurst and Danica Roem.
Like so many other foundations of our Republic, the freedom of the press has uniquely Virginian origins. In 1776, the Virginia Declaration of Rights included the world’s first protections of the free press. “The freedom of the Press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty,” it stated, “and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments.”
Two decades later, James Madison, a Virginian himself, used this language as a model for the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Despite our historical leadership on this issue, Virginia has fallen behind many other states in our efforts to protect journalists in recent years. At the national level, the trend is similarly concerning. In a 2017 study, the United States ranked only 37 of 199 countries for press freedom. For the nation that enshrined this freedom at the very top of the Bill of Rights, this is hardly a ranking our founding fathers would be proud of.
As former journalists ourselves, we understand the critically important role that the press plays in our representative democracy. With this in mind, we have introduced two bills in this year’s General Assembly session that will strengthen protections for both student and professional journalists.
We both got our start in journalism by working for student media, and we know firsthand the important role that student journalists play in communities across Virginia. In recent years, we have heard too many stories about high schools and universities in the commonwealth censoring student reporting or taking retaliatory action against a student publication’s advisor, as happened eight years ago in Madison County.
In this climate, it is vital that we safeguard student journalists’ freedom to pursue the truth and hold those in power accountable. Censoring well-researched and well-vetted stories in student media does not just have a chilling effect on free speech—it also interferes with the open, democratic society our founders envisioned, one shaped by the free exchange of ideas.
HB 2382 will protect the free speech of student journalists at public schools by limiting when school administrators can censor or block the publication of student reporting. This legislation will ensure that the student press, both in K-12 schools and at the commonwealth’s public colleges and universities, can tackle tough, newsworthy issues without fear of interference or retribution from administrators simply because the truth makes the comfortable uncomfortable.
Across the United States, fourteen states have already adopted similar bills to accomplish this goal. And, importantly, HB 2382 is consistent with existing legal limits on the First Amendment, preserving a school’s authority to prevent the publication of content that is defamatory, creates a clear and present danger, or violates federal law.
Legislation is also needed to protect professional journalists. Currently, Virginia is one of only ten states that has not adopted legislation to protect members of the press from being forced to reveal the names of confidential sources. HB 2250, the Virginia Shield Law, adds this critical protection.
It’s been 40 years since a Richmond Circuit Court judge threatened jail time to a Norfolk Star-Ledger for refusing to name a confidential source and 37 years since the same judge fined a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter for a similar reason, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Yet Virginia still has no Shield Law, even as reporters since then have ended up in federal court from Abingdon to Alexandria for protecting their sources.
The bill balances freedom of the press with public safety concerns—journalists would still be required to reveal sources when an imminent threat of bodily harm or death exists, though such instances are extraordinarily rare.
Every year, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle speak of the importance of transparency in government. If we are truly committed to clean, open governance, we must remember that sunshine is, and always has been, the best disinfectant. By taking common-sense and long-overdue steps to protect the journalists who serve in the vanguard of our free society, Virginia can live up to the founding ideals that our commonwealth contributed to this great nation.
Delegate Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, represents the 12th District and Delegate Danica Roem, D-Prince William, represents the 13th District of the Virginia House of Delegates.