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School district sued after eliminating the student newspaper for publishing LGBTQ+ content

The final issue of the Viking Saga
The final issue of the Viking Saga Photo: Screenshot

A school district in Nebraska is getting sued after it shut down a high school newspaper, allegedly in retaliation for the newspaper publishing an edition on LGBTQ+ issues.

“It is hard to find words for what it felt like watching people who were supposed to be supporting our education instead silence us for covering issues impacting our lives,” said Marcus Pennell in a statement. He is a former student at Northwest High School, he is a plaintiff on the lawsuit, and he’s transgender. “I was crushed.”

Last year in May, Northwest High School’s Viking Saga published an edition that addressed several LGBTQ+ issues, including the history of Pride, gender identity, as well as editorials on LGBTQ+ topics.

Three days later, staff and students were told that the Saga would be eliminated. Its contracts with a printing service and a local newspaper for advertising were canceled. A school employee told the printer that the contract was being canceled “because the school board and superintendent are unhappy with the last issue’s editorial content.”

“The very last issue that came out this year, there was… a little bit of hostility amongst some,” Northwest Public Schools board Vice President Zach Mader said. “There were editorials that were essentially, I guess what I would say, LGBTQ.”

“There have been talks of doing away with our newspaper if we were not going to be able to control content that we saw [as] inappropriate,” Mader told the Grand Island Independent.

“There [were] some things that were…” he said, referring to the final issue of the Viking Saga. “If [taxpayers] read that [issue], they would have been like, ‘Holy cow. What is going on at our school?’”

Board President Dan Leiser claimed that “most people were upset they were written,” referring to the articles about LGBTQ+ rights.

In addition to the controversy surrounding content, according to students, Saga staff was reprimanded two months prior after using preferred names and pronouns in the paper and was advised by district officials to use only birth names.

Now the ACLU of Nebraska is helping Pennell and the Nebraska High School Press Association sue Grand Island Northwest Public Schools and its superintendent, alleging that the district violated students’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The district has already agreed to bring the newspaper back, but not in print.

The lawsuit states that principal Tim Krupicka told the students in March 2022 not to refer to people with pronouns and names that were different from those listed in the school’s grading system. When asked why, he said that the practice of referring to people as they want to be referred to could violate the district’s policy on “controversial” topics. Many school districts and even some states use bans on controversial topics to squelch LGBTQ+ speech.

A month later, Pennell wrote an editorial about Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law, which was published in the newspaper’s final, LGBTQ+ edition.

“I’m sure this is a revenge tactic from the pronoun thing a month or so ago,” an email from board president Leiser read, sent just after the publication of the LGBTQ+ edition. The email is cited in the lawsuit. “But I’m going back and forth in the field and I just keep getting more and more upset…. I’m hot on this one, because it’s not ok. The national media does the same crap and I’ve had enough of it. No more school paper, in my opinion. You give someone an inch, they take a mile.”

Hadar Harris, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, points to the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, when the school argued a 13-year-old student could not wear a black armband to protest the Vietnam War.

“In the Tinker case, the Supreme Court said that students and teachers don’t lose their First Amendment and freedom of expression rights at the schoolhouse gates,” said Harris. “We believe that that should apply to student journalists as well.”

“By far, the number one thing that will get student media censored is a story that criticizes the school or that administrators somehow think makes them look bad,” said Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at the Center.

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