Following the results of the off-off-year election last November here in Virginia, we’re starting to see some major changes, some that are long over due.

Both chambers of the legislature voted Wednesday to ratify the Equal Right Amendment (only forty years late) and committees in both houses are seriously considering several common sense laws to restrict the sale of guns.

However, legislators also have some smaller but still significant proposals to consider, regarding legal attempts to shut down free speech.Like the one that would change a law allowing school administrators to “censor student journalists any time, for any reason”.

The legislation affirms the free-speech rights of student journalists at public schools and stipulates that administrators can censor content only if it is libelous or slanderous, violates federal law, or is likely to spur dangerous or unlawful acts of violence. Roughly a dozen states have adopted similar laws since the late 1980s.

The bills in Virginia follow high-profile incidents in the state: Last year, administrators at Maury High School in Norfolk forced student reporters to delete a broadcast revealing the school’s dilapidated condition. In September, a Radford University employee stole editions of the student-run Tartan from campus newsstands.

“Students are being onerously and unfairly censored all the time,” Hurst said. “We have dozens of examples across the Commonwealth.”

Teachers and other adults certainly have a responsibility to help children understand how to express themselves responsibly. Especially (but not limited to) high school and college students who are learning the intricacies of journalism. But not to censor their speech simply because some adults don’t like what they have to say.

Another of those lower-profile bills that also addresses the issue of censorship is one that would give Virginia citizens a strong anti-SLAPP law.

Already on the books in some 40 states, these regulations are designed to stop libel and slander suits filed for the sole purpose of shutting down free speech.

Virginia’s H.B. 759, introduced in the House of Delegates, would create a strong law to stop lawsuits in which the legal claims are just a pretext for silencing or punishing individuals who use their First Amendment rights to speak up on matters of public concern.

Such suits—called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs—have become more common over the past few decades. At EFF, we have supported “anti-SLAPP” laws which allow speakers to quickly dismiss frivolous cases against them and often obtain attorney’s fees.

Hopefully, both of these bills will be passed during the current legislative session. If you live in Virginia, contact your Delegate and Senator to encourage their support of a legal system that encourages people, including kids, to exercise their First Amendment rights.


The graphic was used to illustrate a 2011 story at Ars Technica.