West Virginia’s Student Press Freedom Bill – What Does It Mean 

May, 2023 - Kelsie A. Wiltse

On March 11, 2023, the West Virginia State Legislature enacted the Student Journalist Press Freedom Protection Act (the “Act”), Senate Bill 121. The Act requires “public high schools, colleges, and universities [to] allow for the free expression of student journalists in school sponsored media.” Moreover, the Act protects “instructors and administration who defend their students’ freedom of expression” and “allow[s] for civil actions in the event that a student journalist’s rights are violated.” The Act applies to all students attending a public or state high school, college, or university, and specifically excludes students attending private high schools, colleges, or universities. The purpose of the Act is to promote the freedom of expression through public school-sponsored media, and to encourage the “development of informed and civic-minded citizens” through contributions to student press.
The Act does not protect any expression that violates state or federal law, including expression that is an invasion of privacy, defamatory, obscene, or “expressly incites students to engage in the commission of an unlawful act, a violation of a lawful school policy, or is likely to cause the material and substantial disruption of the operation of the school.”
Public colleges and universities in West Virginia must adopt a written policy that permits the exercise of the right of student journalists to freedom of speech and the press in school-sponsored media. This policy must include a provision that allows for the timely appeal of school administration decisions regarding protected conduct. Students or their advisors that believe a violation of the Act has occurred must exhaust school administrative review procedures prior to instituting any legal proceedings for declaratory relief.
The Act becomes effective on June 9, 2023, making West Virginia the 17th state to enact similar legislation regarding a student journalist’s right to freedom of expression and press. As a result, it is crucial for public colleges and universities in West Virginia to begin implementing policies and procedures in accordance with the Act prior to its effective date to limit potential liability, including liability as a result of proceedings for injunctive or declaratory relief and reasonable attorneys’ fees.


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