NBTB 2017 alum heads to state capitol to testify on his bill protecting student journalists in South Dakota

By Gage Gramlick
NBTB 2017 Year 2 student

Editor’s note: Gramlick, 17, is a junior at Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and editor-in-chief of the Statesman, the school’s student-run website and newspaper. He will testify Wednesday before the South Dakota House of Representatives in support of House Bill 1242, a bill to protect student journalists’ right to freedom of expression. Stay tuned here and @newsroomBTB for updates to this story, one in a series on Newsroom by the Bay alumni.

SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota — This story begins in the dark.

It was a summer afternoon last July. I was at Newsroom by the Bay, a high school journalism camp at Stanford University.

Students gather in the courtyard after classes at NBTB 2017. Photo by NBTB staff.

Along with a few other students, I was hanging out in the courtyard of our dorm with Paul Boylan, an attorney and First Amendment advocate who had just taught a class on student press rights.

Our conversation was about censorship. In South Dakota, I had learned that students had to walk a fine line between what we wanted to say and what others wanted to hear. But listening to Boylan, I learned that states like California, Minnesota and even North Dakota had laws protecting student freedom of speech.

And that’s when I had my epiphany.

I realized that despite the bright summer sun all around us, I was in the dark. That it didn’t have to be the way it was back home. That we, the student journalists of South Dakota, didn’t have to accept censorship in public schools.

And so my journey began.

Gage Gramlick (center) ponders a question during a fake news skit during NBTB 2017.  Screenshot by NBTB staff.

As soon as I got home, I began researching the legislative process. Sure, I was in over my head, but the vague drowning sensation only made me want the bill to pass more. If I had to burn some midnight oil to master the issues, so be it.

The first step was figuring out how the heck I was going to pass a bill protecting students’ freedom of speech. So I went to Google Docs and created a new document titled “Plan.”

Creative, I know. But the Plan was my road map, my bill Bible. To it I added every piece of advice, every fact or important date I found. Before long, I had a fairly logical path carved out. The first step: Set up a meeting with my local legislative representative.

As chance would have it, Jaime Smith, one of two Democrats in the House Education Committee, is my good friend’s dad. Yes, South Dakota is small. We met and I pitched him a bill modeled on the California Student Free Expression Law, also known as California Education Code 48907. He loved it.

The next step was working with the state Legislative Research Council in Pierre to craft a bill in line with South Dakota law.

As written, House Bill 1242 would ensure student journalists and others who create school-sponsored media as well as student media advisers the freedom to express their views, without fear of censorship or of being dismissed, suspended, disciplined or otherwise punished for their views.

Simple, but for where I live, it’s a big step.

Gramlick (back row, fifth from left) and the staff of the (Lincoln High School) Statesman. Photo by Statesman staff/used with permission.

My journalism teammates — the staff of the (Lincoln High School) Statesman — were some of the earliest adopters of the bill, helping to research and network with supporters. The passion ignited in my school was nearly tangible, with positive feedback from students to first-year principal Robert Grimm. On a district level, my superintendent is very excited that I’m doing this and getting into civics.

However, I’m pretty sure that superintendents are going to be the ones that are our opposition tomorrow when I testify before the House Education Committee at the state Capitol in Pierre, South Dakota. We foresee that their biggest point is that the bill is unnecessary and that they are going to argue for local control instead of state control. More than likely, they don’t want to have a bill that could be a challenge for them in the future.

At this point, we are working to build a coalition of other student newspapers throughout the state. The Associated Press of South Dakota has endorsed us. Our local paper, the Argus Leader, is writing an editorial supporting us.

We’ll find out tomorrow if the bill gets out of committee. It will be up to two Democrats and 12 Republicans. Right now it’s a toss. A bill protecting student journalists’ press rights is hard to pass in South Dakota. But we’ve really done our work, so I’m optimistic. Even if we don’t pass the bill this year, we’ll come back even stronger.

The Student Press Law Center’s State Tracker shows states that protect student journalists from censorship. NBTB screenshot.

Whatever happens, it’s worth noting that we’re part of a movement. Thanks to the Student Press Law Center’s New Voices campaign, North Dakota unanimously passed the John Wall New Voices Act in 2015. I looked at the North Dakota testimony to build my argument.

The dome at South Dakota’s state capitol building. Photo by Parkerdr at Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0.  

That sunny day at Stanford was a beginning.

The truth is, change is a product of motivation, and motivation happens when life takes a different turn than the one you were expecting.

Tomorrow in Pierre, my journalism teammates and I will fight for the freedom we need to fulfill the responsibilities of true journalists.

Never thought I’d do something like this. But I’m not in the dark anymore. I hope we win.

Click here for the Argus Leader’s video interview with Gramlick at Lincoln High School.



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