Nebraska school officials close newspaper after LGBTQ issue

Aug 25, 2022, 10:56 AM | Updated: Aug 26, 2022, 12:05 pm
Former Viking Saga newspaper staff members Marcus Pennell, left, and Emma Smith, right, display a p...

Former Viking Saga newspaper staff members Marcus Pennell, left, and Emma Smith, right, display a pride flag outside of Northwest High School in Grand Island, Neb., July 20, 2022. Administrators of a Nebraska public school have shuttered the school’s award-winning student newspaper, just days after its last edition that included articles and editorials on LGBTQ issues. (McKenna Lamoree/The Independent via AP)

(McKenna Lamoree/The Independent via AP)

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) — Administrators at a Nebraska school shuttered the school’s award-winning student newspaper just days after its last edition that included articles and editorials on LGBTQ issues, leading press freedom advocates to call the move an act of censorship.

The staff of Northwest Public Schools’ 54-year-old Saga newspaper was informed on May 19 of the paper’s elimination, the Grand Island Independent reported. Three days earlier, the newspaper had printed its June edition, which included an article titled, “Pride and prejudice: LGBTQIA+” on the origins of Pride Month and the history of homophobia. It also included an editorial opposing a Florida law that bans some lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity and dubbed by critics as “Don’t Say Gay.”

Officials overseeing the district, which is based in Grand Island, have not said when or why the decision was made to eliminate the student paper. But an email from a school employee to the Independent cancelling the student paper’s printing services on May 22 said it was “because the school board and superintendent are unhappy with the last issue’s editorial content.”

The paper’s demise also came a month after its staff was reprimanded for publishing students’ preferred pronouns and names. District officials told students they could only use names assigned at birth going forward.

Emma Smith, Saga’s assistant editor in 2022, said the student paper was informed that the ban on preferred names was made by the school board. That decision directly affected Saga staff writer Marcus Pennell, a transgender student, who saw his byline changed against his wishes to his birth name of “Meghan” Pennell in the June issue.

“It was the first time that the school had officially been, like, ‘We don’t really want you here,'” Pennell said. “You know, that was a big deal for me.”

Northwest Principal P.J. Smith referred the Independent’s questions to district superintendent Jeff Edwards, who declined to answer the questions of when and why the student paper was eliminated, saying only that it was “an administrative decision.”

Some school board members have made no secret of their objection to the Saga’s LGBTQ content, including board president Dan Leiser, who said “most people were upset” with it.

Board vice president Zach Mader directly cited the pro-LGBTQ editorials, adding that if district taxpayer had read the last issue of the Saga, “they would have been like, ‘Holy cow. What is going on at our school?'”

“It sounds like a ham-fisted attempt to censor students and discriminate based on disagreement with perspectives and articles that were featured in the student newspaper,” said Sara Rips, an attorney for the Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Nebraska Press Association attorney Max Kautsch, who specializes in media law in Nebraska and Kansas, noted that press freedom is protected in the U.S. Constitution.

“The decision by the administration to eliminate the student newspaper violates students’ right to free speech, unless the school can show a legitimate educational reason for removing the option to participate in a class … that publishes award-winning material,” Kautsch said. “It is hard to imagine what that legitimate reason could be.”

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Nebraska school officials close newspaper after LGBTQ issue