Could a Virginia bill limiting public records access threaten student journalists?
VIRGINIA — For years, student journalists in Virginia have been able to request students' addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses from their colleges and universities directories. House Bill 1 could change that.
HB1 passed the Virginia House of Delegates on Feb. 7 with wide bipartisan support. The bill will now move to the Virginia Senate.
Sponsored by Republican Delegate Tony Wilt, the bill was created in response to NextGen Virginia's use of Freedom of Information Act requests.
The progressive advocacy group acquired student contact information from 18 different Virginia public colleges and universities through public records requests. NextGen then gave these records to political campaigns who used the information to text students about voter registration.
While HB1 is a win for privacy advocates, its a potential loss for student journalists and others seeking addresses, phone numbers, and emails from student directories.
The bill would make it so college and university students have to "opt-in" for their contact information to be listed in directories. Right now students are automatically included in the directory unless they "opt-out."
Editor-in-Chief of Virginia Tech's Collegiate Times Matt Jones said he frequently uses FOIA requests. While Jones' newspaper doesn't usually request bulk student records, his main concern was that HB1 could set a dangerous precedent. Colleges and universities could use HB1 as a way to deny FOIA requests that include student contact information which would have been otherwise approved, said Jones.
"Hopefully it will not have a chilling effect on us," Jones said.
Senior Legal Counsel for the Student Press Law Center Mike Hiestand sees HB1 as potentially disastrous for student journalists. "This is really the nuclear option for public records." He added, "[HB1 is] going to create a real barrier. Student directories are a bread and butter reporting tool."
"This is info that has been available to the public for decades," said Megan Rhyne, the executive director for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. College and university students over 18 should not be treated differently than any other adult who is subject to FOIA requests, she said.
Editor-in-Chief Matt Weyrich of James Madison University's The Breeze offered a different opinion. Non-collegiate publications will face the biggest hurdles with HB1, Weyrich said, since they will not be able to access student email addresses. He did not feel that the bill would encroach on his paper's reporting since most of the time student information is found through Facebook and the internal JMU address book.
"I don't think there are any glaring issues with the bill," Weyrich said.
When asked about the effects HB1 could have on journalists, Wilt said, "It has not been a concern of mine." He added that he did not see how limiting access to student addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses could harm reporting. If the bill ends up having unintended consequences for journalists, though, Wilt said he would be willing to revise the bill.
"I'd be willing to take another look at it."
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college, FOIA, news, privacy, public records, recent-news, Virginia