Nebraska school officials close down student newspaper that published LGBTQ articles
Administrators at a Nebraska school shuttered its award-winning student newspaper just days after a last edition that included articles and editorials on LGBTQ issues, leading advocates of press freedom to call the move an act of censorship.
The staff of Northwest Public Schools’ 54-year-old Saga newspaper was informed 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, dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
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 canceling the student paper’s printing services 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 use only names assigned at birth.
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.”
Experts say children are at risk from a surge in anti-LGBTQ legislation.
Northwest Principal P.J. Smith referred the Independent’s questions to district Supt. 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 that “most people were upset” with it.
Board Vice President Zach Mader directly cited the pro-LGBTQ editorials, adding that if district taxpayers had read the last issue of 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.
In California schools, teachers do and must say the word “gay” as well as lesbian and transgender in lessons about nonconforming expressions of gender.
Nebraska Press Assn. 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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