RICHMOND, Va. — A Virginia House bill that would protect student journalists and protect them from defamation lawsuits has advanced out of committee.
Rep. R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, amended House Bill 2078 to a similar piece of legislation last year after it was seen as a threat to media freedom at the University of Virginia and elsewhere. The Senate has passed a similar bill in the past.
The House Commerce and Labor Committee on Thursday voted 9-1 to pass Landes’ amended version of the bill. The measure now goes to the full House for a vote.
The amended legislation, sent by the same committee last year, would protect the free speech rights of student journalists while still permitting journalists to seek damages for libel or slander in defamation cases against them. Landes’ version also addresses a part of Virginia law that allows courts to order publications that are “substantially similar” to those that claim infringement in defamation cases to pay the attorney’s fees of the defendants.
“While I’m obviously disappointed in the committee vote, I will continue to work with the committee and my colleagues in the House to protect all student journalists,” Landes said in a statement.
The Charlottesville Daily Progress newspaper filed suit against the University of Virginia after it was assigned to write a story about students handing out fliers with photos of U.Va. students posing nude with slogans that read “Naked Ladies at UVA” and “Naked Latina at UVA” to raise awareness of sexual assault on the college campus.
The Charlottesville-based newspaper argued that it didn’t post the photos or use the content to advance the cause of the lawsuit, and was instead merely doing journalism. U.Va. officials called the incident a threat to the campus and the journalism program.
Lawyers for the university and the Daily Progress disputed the university’s position that the student journalists violated their rights under the First Amendment. The Charlottesville Circuit Court awarded the newspaper a $177,000 judgment for damages, with $15,000 in attorney’s fees to be paid by the defendants. The state Court of Appeals denied the university’s final appeal, saying it “far exceeded” its authority.
The amended bill would provide liability immunity for student journalists in “basically anything written by a student journalist” during their school year that is posted or distributed on the Internet or in an electronic format.
Only a student journalist, not the student media organization the student belongs to, would be covered. The legislation would cover a computer device or phone that is connected to the Internet and an electronic publication, communication, activity or publication by a student journalist, with exceptions for new media, the State Board of Education or student journalists at a postsecondary institution.
The Internet exemption would be included in existing regulations of student Internet access.
Landes also seeks to amend the Virginia State Code’s section 17-103.7 by stripping the requirement that in a private action, a party seeking to enforce an order requiring attorneys’ fees against the defendant pay the attorney’s fees of the “substantially similar defendant” in the case.
“I’m interested in having both protections for students and defendants,” Landes said after the committee hearing. “I’m not going to continue to leave out one and put in the other.”
Local reporters at the Daily Progress are shown in the above photo gathered after a recent court hearing in the Campus Media Freedom and Privacy Act.