Student press freedom bill fails in South Dakota House Education Committee

SOUTH DAKOTA — South Dakota’s House Education Committee effectively killed a bill that would protect some First Amendment rights of public school students, after it voted 11-3 to defer the bill until the 41st day of the legislative session.

There are only 40 days in South Dakota’s session.

House Bill 1242 would have given students in public elementary and high schools free expression in school-sponsored media. It did not protect content that is libelous, excessively invades a person’s privacy, engages in illegal activity, or that would incite students or disrupt the school’s operations.It also would have protected school employees who refuse to infringe on students’ rights. 

Gage Gramlick, a junior at Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls and the editor of the school’s newspaper, The Statesman, said he was not surprised by the outcome. 

“We kind of thought that would be the result for a while now,” Gramlick said. “We’re playing the long game, though. This isn’t the last you’ll hear from us.”

Gramlick said he started researching the bill in July before reaching out to his local representative, Jamie Smith, D-Minnehaha. He said he was optimistic going in, but he said South Dakota has a pattern of voting down similar legislation.

Before the school year started, Gramlick met with his principal to discuss the bill, he said, and he found him to be supportive. 

Katie Osmundson, another member of The Statesman staff, and David Bordewyck, the executive director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, also spoke in favor of the bill. 

Bordewyck said student journalists are “shackled by antiquated legal rules” that deprive them of the ability to make their voices heard on important topics.

“This isn’t the last you’ll hear from us.”

“Public schools are still mired in the 1980s, thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that emboldened school officials to confiscate newspapers, rewrite articles and retaliate against some of the nation’s most effective journalism educators,” he said. “All in the name of public relations control.”

Several members of the public spoke against the bill’s passage, including Wade Pogany, the executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota. Pogany said that constitutional rights have limits in order protect people, including journalism students. 

Pogany said free speech is “a balance” between the rights of people and the harm that speech can cause. He said the bill would have shifted authority from administrators to students.

“The students’ pen now is bigger than the school,” Pogany said. “That’s what it said. This not like we’re in a private publish[er] of a newspaper. We are in the context of a school.”

Rob Munon, the executive director of the School Administrators of South Dakota, said students don’t always make the best decisions, so it’s the school’s responsibility to “step in” and help the student.

He referenced a situation in the 1990s where a student newspaper in South Dakota included a questionnaire that asked what students would do if the world were about to end. Munson said one student responded that he would shoot then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. The school section of the local paper printed the comment, he said.

Munson said two days later, the U.S. Secret Service was in the superintendent’s office to interview the student, who was placed on a watch list. He said that, under the guidelines outlined in the bill, this content would be allowed. 

“We worked hard to get the coalition that we have now, but we need a bigger one for next year.”

“Students, at times, are too young to understand the consequences of their words or actions and need the guidance of a teacher,” Munson said.

Bordewyck said that, with young people being bombarded with gossip and online rumors, it is better for them to be practicing responsible, supervised journalism — through practices like fact-checking and balanced reporting — than have them posting unregulated content through social media.

In his rebuttal, Gramlick said the questionnaire example wouldn’t be protected by the bill anyway because it would violate a section of the bill which prohibits expression that could “materially and substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the school.”

Gramlick said he will be involved in putting together another campaign for next year. He said he and others learned which language in the current bill was troublesome and will work to build a larger coalition for the next session.

“We worked hard to get the coalition that we have now, but we need a bigger one for next year,” he said.

North Dakota passed a similar bill in 2015, called The John Wall New Voices Act. The law ensured free speech rights for college and public school students, and passed unanimously through the legislature.

New Voices legislation is currently pending in six other states and has been passed in 13 states.

To student journalists in states without New Voices legislation, Gramlick said to “do it,” even though the road is difficult.

“Understand that, not only will it be difficult, but it will be worth it,” he said. “You will learn so much in the process, not just about New Voices, but about local government, your state and the people that you work with on a day-to-day basis.”

SPLC staff writer Taylor Potter can be reached by email or at (202) 478-1926. He is on Twitter @wmtaylorpotter.

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