Hours later, an email from the principal hit Laub’s inbox: The story had to come down.
“I actually remember having this physical response of rage,” said Karstens, now a 20-year-old senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It was this pain, right below my collarbone.”
It’s a scenario Virginia lawmakers hope to prevent through proposed legislation that would limit administrative censorship of student publications in public middle schools, high schools and colleges across the state. Last month, Dels. Chris L. Hurst (D-Montgomery) and Danica A. Roem (D-Prince William) — both former journalists — introduced the measure in the House, and Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax) filed a companion bill in the Senate.
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.”
A 1988 Supreme Court ruling found that student journalists are entitled to a lower level of First Amendment protections than professional journalists, opening the door to interference by school administrators, said Hillary Davis, an organizer with the Student Press Law Center. That case — Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier — centered on a principal’s decision to remove two student articles about divorce and teen pregnancy.
The justices wrote that school officials can censor student publications with impunity so long as the censorship is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
What that meant, Davis said, is that “if you are in the student press, suddenly you can be censored for virtually any reason whatsoever.”
Nationally, she has witnessed censorship of all kinds — from administrators who deleted yearbook photos of students in “Make America Great Again” gear to officials who spiked an investigative story unearthing financial mismanagement.
Roem said she worries students’ inability to report the news will teach bad habits to future journalists — or worse, kill their enthusiasm for the profession. At a time when local news outlets are disappearing throughout the country, Roem said, it’s vital that student outlets step up to cover their communities.
“We can’t have teenage reporters being treated like PR outlets by the administration, ” Roem said. “That helps exactly no one.”
Last school year, two Lasso staffers, Colter Adams and Evan Jones, began to wonder whether administrative censorship damages the quality of student journalism.
After analyzing data gathered from 50 states, the students concluded that public high schools in states with anti-censorship laws were more likely to win journalism awards than schools in states without those laws. Adams and Jones outlined their findings in a June article for the Lasso, “This is what quality journalism looks like.”
“Clearly, having censorship means you’re less likely to be prepared for actual journalism,” said Adams, 18, the Lassos’s managing editor and an aspiring political reporter who sneak-reads longform investigations when he gets bored in class.
He and other Lasso staffers — along with Laub, the journalism adviser — say they will do everything they can to speed passage of the anti-censorship measure over the next several months. They’ve already published an editorial and are planning a letter-writing campaign to legislators.
Hurst introduced a version of the legislation last year, but it died in a 5-to-3 subcommittee vote. He attributes the failure to some lawmakers’ belief that young people are not sufficiently mature to make news judgments, an argument he finds ridiculous.
“If we trust students to use a lathe in a wood shop, or a blowtorch in a technical education course,” Hurst said, “why are we so afraid of giving them a pen?”
Hurst has been working to build support this time around and said he feels optimistic about the bill’s prospects. He is expecting to draw backers from both sides of the political aisle — as has been the case for similar legislation nationwide, Davis said.
Over the past five years, a spate of laws meant to protect student journalists’ First Amendment rights — known as “New Voices” laws — passed throughout the nation, often with bipartisan support, Davis said. Fourteen states — including Maryland and the District — already have New Voices laws on the books, and the Student Press Law Center estimates a dozen more, including Virginia, will consider similar bills this year.
The Hazelwood ruling does not prevent states from granting full First Amendment rights to student journalists, according to Davis.
Davis said the newfound enthusiasm for student journalism stems from a confluence of two broader trends. First, school-aged activists have convinced adults that students have something worthwhile to say — most prominently through movements combating gun violence and climate change.
“Second, we’re having a larger conversation about press freedom generally,” Davis said, pointing in part to the Trump administration’s repeated attacks on journalists.
Karstens knows exactly what inspired her.
When Laub stuck up for Karstens and her reporting, administrators backed off. Her article went back online June 8, 2016, with a deletion — Karstens agreed to remove the exact number of absences the Yale-bound student had recorded, yielding to officials’ concerns about student privacy.
The incident spurred her to petition the Falls Church City School Board to adopt an anti-censorship policy. That campaign failed, so Karstens spent her senior year as Lasso editor in chief holding George Mason’s principal, Matt Hills, to the letter of the law: She bucked custom and forced Hills to review every article the Lasso published. She was in his office almost every day.
“I won’t forget Kate hovering,” said Hills, who assumed the principalship after the publication of the absenteeism article. (Tyrone Byrd, the former principal who ordered the story taken down, did not respond to requests for comment.)
“At some point,” Hills said, “even with the door closed, I could almost sense her from afar.”
Later, Karstens traveled to Richmond to testify in favor of Hurst’s first version of the bill. She was sad to hear of its failure.
Censorship may still be legal, but she’s left her mark anyway.
Spray-painted in black and white on the wall of Laub’s classroom, above the whiteboard, is a clenched hand. Adjacent red block letters scream: “THE FIST OF ACCOUNTABILITY.”
Signed — just below the wrist — “KATE KARSTENS.”