Former Journalists in the General Assembly Are Working to Protect Freedom of Press

Jan 17, 2020

Chris Hurst, a former anchor at WDBJ, has a bill that would give new protections to student journalists to protect them from administrators who want to suppress reporting.
Credit AP Photo / Steve Helber

Press freedom and access to information are issues that might get more traction this year now that Democrats have taken control of the General Assembly.

One of the points of pride here at the General Assembly is that this is a part-time legislature and all the lawmakers have day jobs and professional associations outside politics. These days, that includes a handful of journalists. One of them is former WDBJ anchor Chris Hurst, who now represents Blacksburg. He has a bill that would give new protections to student journalists to protect them from administrators who want to suppress reporting.

“It can’t be because a student journalist wants to report on something that might be unflattering or something that might be of a public nature but might be unsettling, something that might inform students about a pressing issue but is something that is sensitive," Hurst says. "Those are not legitimate reasons to sensor a story as is happening now across the Commonwealth every single school year.”

Delegate Danica Roem is a former newspaper reporter with the Gainesville Times and the Prince William Times. She now represents the areas she used to report on, and she wants to create a shield law to protect confidential sources.

“And we have seen cases in Virginia from Bristol to Alexandria where you’ve had reporters being either threatened with contempt of court or they’ve been threatened with punitive action of some sort or they’ve been jailed for protecting the identity of a confidential source,” Roem explains.

Roem also has a bill to create an ombudsman to resolve disputes over access to public records and another bill that would create a searchable database of police records on cold cases.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.