Brian Schraum ditched school for several days in January. The 19-year-old Washington State University junior wasn’t playing hooky, though. He was testifying in Olympia on behalf of a free-press bill he inspired.

Schraum, a communication major, is trying to protect high school and college newspapers from censorship. House Bill 1307, which Schraum helped Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-Des Moines) craft, would put the full weight of editorial decisions in the hands of the student editors. Even in high schools.

Last year, as editor of the Green River Community College newspaper, Schraum realized that while he had the freedom to print what he chose, that freedom wasn’t guaranteed. The Running Start student wanted to set up an agreement with the school’s administration to make the paper’s editorial autonomy official.

Censorship hadn’t been a problem, but he wanted to be sure it wouldn’t become one, especially after hearing about a federal court ruling allowing other colleges to censor.

At first, the community college administration supported his effort, but not for long. “I guess they talked to their attorney and they were like, ‘Well, we don’t know,'” Schraum says.

So he changed tactics and contacted Upthegrove, who had once visited one of his classes. “I shot him an e-mail one day….I wasn’t expecting to hear much,” he says. Then one afternoon the newsroom phone rang. He picked it up and was stunned to hear Upthegrove on the other end of the line.

They met last summer at an ice cream shop in Des Moines. There, surrounded by milkshakes and sundaes, they laid the groundwork for a bill that would bring national attention to both Upthegrove and Schraum.

“I’ve enjoyed working with Brian. He is a nice guy and easy to work with. He is levelheaded, smart, and a good communicator,” Upthegrove responded via e-mail from a hearing. “I feel very comfortable having him join me in meetings and having him as the public face for the bill.

“He is an articulate spokesperson on the issue,” Upthegrove wrote. “He has responded to media inquiries, joined in a meeting with the Attorney General’s Office, has spoken on several public panels, and has educated and rallied student press colleagues around the state.”

Opponents of the bill argue that newspapers at public schools are sponsored by state money, so the administrators of those schools have the right to control the content. Schraum argues that newspapers are public forums, even at high schools.

“There’s no knowledge requirement for the First Amendment,” Schraum says. “I don’t think it’s a matter of maturity, for me anyway, it’s a fundamental rights matter.

“I don’t think we ought to put this qualifier—’well you have to reach this age’ or ‘you have to have this level of education or maturity’–to be protected by the Constitution.”

Schraum’s work is important, because students can’t learn editorial judgment if they have principals and other authorities making their decisions, says John Irby, WSU associate professor of communication. “In the real world, the publisher—who I would equate to the administrator—in most cases does not get down to reading copy in advance,” Irby says. “The best publishers leave it up to their editors to make editorial decisions.”

The only way to teach responsibility is to put it in the hands of the students, he says.

Many student journalists attended the hearing in January to support the bill—so many, in fact, that a partition in the committee room had to be removed to make space. “I think the number of students who showed up probably spoke louder than any testimony,” says Schraum.

He also credits the help of Mike Hiestand of the Student Press Law Center, a national nonprofit agency that provides legal support for student journalists.

“So there’s a lot of people that are supportive, but it’s not a WSU effort. It’s pretty much Brian’s efforts,” Irby says. “I wish it was a WSU effort.”

While most first-year WSU students are out socializing and studying, Schraum has been meeting with legislators and giving interviews to news organizations across the country. USA Today wrote an editorial in support of the bill and praising his efforts. The Seattle Times has editorialized against it.

Schraum has made numerous trips to Olympia during the process—he says he pushed for legislation and put the time into it because he wasn’t sure anyone else would.

“It’s important to me,” Schraum says. “This whole movement has been the single most valuable thing that I’ve ever been a part of.”

Editor’s note: Since this story has gone to print, House
Bill 1307 was amended to exclude public high schools. For a
statement from Brian Schraum, click here.