Meet the South Dakota student pushing state legislators for student press freedom

The story is from The Lead, a weekly newsletter for student journalists in college and high school, created by Taylor Blatchford. Subscribe here.

Only 14 states have laws protecting press freedom for student journalists, and Gage Gramlick hopes to make South Dakota the 15th.

Gage is a senior at Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the editor-in-chief of the Statesman, a 50-student online and print news publication. He shared his experiences working with state legislators and building a coalition supporting student press freedom.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me how you got involved in press freedom efforts in South Dakota.

I went to the Newsroom by the Bay workshop between my sophomore and junior year to refine some skills before becoming editor-in-chief. (The Statesman) had been censored previously, and I didn’t think a lot about it because it was kind of the norm. When you have nothing to compare yourself to, it’s not as big of a deal.

When I went to the workshop and was surrounded by amazing journalists from around the country, many without prior review, I was astounded by that and it shifted my worldview. I realized there is another option and we can fight to have journalism that is valid in South Dakota.

How did you get started working on the bill?

It was basically self-education for civics, because I hadn’t taken a government class yet and had to teach myself a lot about how South Dakota government works. I did lots of research on the process and South Dakota politics and had to synthesize that into an achievable plan.

Once I figured out the first step was to get a representative on board, it seemed a lot easier. Jamie Smith is one of the few Democrats in the South Dakota House of Representatives, and he was really helpful — I knew him previously because I knew his son.

I had sample legislation from California that had been passed and a mission statement of why I wanted to fit this bill into the context of South Dakota. We’re very proud to be from South Dakota and we don’t like it when out-of-state interests come in, so we have to be very careful to not scare anybody off with legislation from California. It’s really about framing the bill to your audience.

How did you frame the bill to legislators?

It’s awesome because it supports freedom of expression for student journalists and allows civically minded students to engage. Jamie was an immense resource in figuring out the linguistics to be successful.

After we met and he adopted the bill, I worked with the South Dakota Legislative Research Council to change the language from the California bill to South Dakota language. Certain aspects in California were going to be major friction points for South Dakota Republicans, so we had to change the layout and some of the language to soften it and make it easier to swallow.

After that we went to the House, and I testified in front of the House Education Committee of 12 Republicans and two Democrats. We got shot down 11-3, which was actually better than I expected. It’s such a hard bill to get passed and the superintendents of South Dakota came against us, which was hard to overcome.

Tell me about testifying in front of the House.

There are 40 days in the legislative session, but we didn’t know when in that time period the hearing would be. We learned about it a week ahead of time and I had to put everything else on hold.

The biggest thing was organizing a coalition and writing the testimony itself. We had the AP of South Dakota and various students come and testify, and I testified as the main mover. I worked to make sure our testimony wasn’t redundant but was powerful and unifying.

This bill really should not be a partisan bill — it’s freedom of speech — but in South Dakota the main issue is local control. Trying to get them to understand that this should be a standard, not something we leave up to people locally, is tricky.

“Fake news” is a hot topic with South Dakota Republicans, and we twisted that a little to say, this is a way we can combat that. If we’re worried about a climate of misinformation, the way we can combat this is by educating students to be media literate and able to create media that’s genuine and well thought out.

Are you going to try again?

Definitely, and we’re a lot stronger this year. Last spring I went to our state convention for student journalists and I got to have a conversation with about 300 student journalists about the bill.

If we can get testimony from rural and urban areas showing this is something that is needed in all walks of life, then I think we’ll have done the best we can. I made a schematic of each district in the House and Senate so when I reach out to other students I can say, here’s the email for your rep. Tell them why you support it. I hope that going into the committee, each politician will have been contacted by someone from their district.

What did you learn from the process?

The most amazing thing I’ve learned is that in South Dakota, we connect well and are passionate about freedom of speech. Everyone recognizes the immense power that comes with speaking your mind and having open dialogue.

I’ve also learned when you become a person who’s working with the political world, you have to be careful not to alienate people because of something you said or something you’ve done, while also remaining true to yourself.

What’s your advice to other students? What resources would you recommend?

Just do it. When you’re in a state that doesn’t have New Voices legislation or something similar, don’t wait for someone else to start working on it; you’re capable of it. All it takes is dedication and some research. Think of it as an opportunity to help future journalists and create a future where freedom of speech is something you expect and not something that can be taken away.

The Student Press Law Center is a really good resource. Any local organization that’s connected (to journalism) is a good place to start when you’re starting to build your coalition. They’ll know everyone in the arena, and that’s how you can get your foot in the door.

Republished with permission of the author.