This year, Delegates Chris Hurst, D-12, and Danica Roem, D-13 of the Virginia General Assembly put forth their own bills to protect reporters in Virginia, as it is one of the few states in the country that does not have a shield law — a law that protects journalists from being compelled to reveal their sources — in its code. Both bills unceremoniously failed to pass, leaving the rest of us to wonder why.
Both are journalists-turned-lawmakers. Roem’s bill focused on allowing journalists to keep sources confidential in all but the most extreme cases, while Hurst’s bill looked to protect student journalists from complete administrative control.
Student newsrooms are frequently overlooked by more expansive publications that see them as a lesser form of journalism, despite all of the hard work and genuinely impressive effort that student journalists are capable of. These publications are usually at the mercy of school administrations. Funding typically comes from the school, and teachers or advisers control the content.
The Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that high school student papers could be censored by school officials. This decision opened the door for wide-spread censorship of student papers, which administrators have been all too eager to indulge in. Students are some of the best people to hold administrators accountable, and by denying them the same — or just even similar — protections under the law, lawmakers are helping to create an environment ripe for corruption.
Freedom of the press should not be conditional. Student journalists put their hearts and souls into their work — and typically aren’t paid for it — and their ability to do so should not rely on the integrity of those students journalists are trying to hold accountable. Student journalists can be just as capable of producing newsworthy content as their older counterparts.
Thankfully, college media has some some protections under the law. College papers are more likely to be run independently of the school that they cover. However, papers covering private colleges and universities face hurdles similar to those at high school papers. The Liberty Champion — a student publication at Liberty University — was censored by university president Jerry Falwell after a sports editor wrote a column critical of then-candidate Donald Trump’s comments about women that he characterized as “locker-room talk.” Other college papers have faced similar censorship or threats.
It’s not all doom and gloom for student media. The past few decades have seen a growth in resources for student journalists. Groups like the National Scholastic Press Association and the Associated Collegiate Press provide students with training and advice. The Student Press Law Center — from which I received legal advice in regards to a story I’ve been working on — works with student publications to fight censorship and push back against the Hazelwood decision.
It’s not just student journalists that are under threat, though. Professional reporters working in Virginia face similar obstacles through the course of their reporting. Virginia is consistently rated as one of the least transparent states and lawmakers have a consistent record of ignoring the Commonwealth’s sunshine laws — laws that give citizens access to government records.
In LaRouche v. National Broadcasting Co., the Fourth Circuit Court — which Virginia is under the jurisdiction of — ruled that a journalist can only be compelled by the court to reveal or testify against a confidential source if the information is relevant to an investigation, cannot be obtained through any other means and is of a compelling interest. Putting this into the code of Virginia should not be a controversial issue. Without explicit state laws preventing it, journalists could go to jail for refusing to reveal their sources. And any self-respecting journalist would chose incarceration over breaching a source’s trust.
Refusing to protect the free press is detrimental to a healthy democracy. The only people who benefit from a weak and ineffective press are those in power, people much like the lawmakers who killed these two bills.
This is not the first time Roem has attempted to strengthen protections for Virginia reporters. Last year, Roem introduced a similar bill, only to see it killed in a similarly unceremonious manner.
Neither Roem nor Hurst are likely to give up yet. But in the meantime, reporting in Virginia will continue on as before, with professional and student journalists in the Commonwealth facing unnecessary trials to do their jobs. Lawmakers owe it to their constituents to support a robust free press. As last week clearly demonstrated, only the morally corrupt benefit from a lack of rigorous reporting.
All we journalists have is our word. The people we interview are not compensated for their efforts, no matter how great. If we can’t promise not to out them, what then do we have? How can we claim to serve the people?