Protect the Rights of Student Journalists – Support SB 216

Tyler Spence and Duncan Slade

Student media is indispensable to the community it serves and the rights of student journalists must be protected.

Their work informs students, parents, faculty, alumni, and administrators about news and issues that will impact their daily lives at the institution they care about.

As Marshall University searched for a new president this past fall, The Parthenon provided reporting and coverage during the search that no other publication could rival. Student journalists broke down each one of the final five candidates in detail and covered the protests and resolutions from Marshall’s Student Government Association because of the selection of Brad D. Smith as Marshall’s new university president.

Student journalists also hold institutions accountable. In recent weeks, the Daily Athenaeum reported on a student who was served raw chicken from a WVU dining hall and dozens of health code violations at the same facilities. Last week, leadership from WVU’s food contractor Sodexo faced tough questions about the incident from the University Board of Governors who directly cited the work of student journalists. Sodexo executives promised they would improve food safety at WVU dining halls because of reporting from student journalists.

Earlier this semester, the DA also reported on WVU’s decision to stop reporting cases of COVID-19 on campus. After the story, administrators changed university policy and started reporting cases again.

Student journalists are a specialized form of local media that exists to serve a niche audience, however, they are too often relegated to a second class status in the eyes of the law and of public perception.

The rights of student journalists and their advisors should be protected, and their organizations should be allowed to operate without fear of retaliation and censorship from the schools they serve. Current laws allow schools sweeping authority to censor student media in arbitrary and subjective manners. Not only is this a violation of the rights of student journalists, but it is a tremendous disservice to the communities these journalists serve.

SB 216 would create the “Student Journalist Press Freedom Restoration Act” and allow for the censorship of student media only in specific circumstances. Administrators could censor material that is libelous or slanderous, invades privacy, violates state or federal law, or would disrupt the orderly operation of the school.

It would put essential guardrails on the ability of administrators to censor student publications and protect student media advisors from retaliation if they refuse to censor protected speech.

Over a dozen states have already passed such laws and this proposal is backed by the American Bar Association and a myriad of prominent journalism associations.

Student media is an essential part of any school. It can be a place that informs students, holds administrators accountable, and, most importantly, differentiates fact from fiction in a world of social media rumors that spread like wildfire. This important work needs to be protected.

Tyler Spence is the executive editor of The Parthenon, the independent student newspaper of Marshall University. Duncan Slade is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Athenaeum, the independent student newspaper of West Virginia University.