A high school student newspaper and related class in Nebraska were shuttered by school administrators in May 2022, after student journalists featured LGBTQ content in their end-of-year issue, a move press freedom advocates condemned as censorship.
The Grand Island Independent reported that Northwest Public Schools administrators abruptly announced an end to the Viking Saga, a 54-year-old student publication in Grand Island, just three days after the newspaper published its June issue on May 16.
According to the Independent, which publishes the school newspaper, an email sent by a school employee to cancel printing services on May 22 said the news program was slashed because the school board and superintendent were “unhappy with the last issue's editorial content.”
The Saga advisor declined to comment to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. The student journalists told the Independent that Saga staff had been reprimanded in April by district officials who said to use only birth names in bylines and articles.
Marcus Pennell, a college freshman and former Saga student journalist, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post that the Saga staff decided to highlight LGBTQ issues after the reprimand.
“The Saga’s staff disagreed with the policy,” Pennell wrote. “So with our next issue, we knew we wanted to make a statement.”
The June issue’s LGBTQ content, according to Pennell, was three articles and, next to the paper’s nameplate, two rainbow icons.
“Every other story in the paper was dedicated to honoring Northwest’s expansive student life.”
Saga student journalists reached out to the Student Press Law Center, which condemned the censorship and worked with the students. Mike Hiestand, SPLC senior legal counsel, told the Tracker that this incident is part of a recent string of attacks on student journalism.
“The very first question I have to ask when a student journalist calls is ‘Where are you calling from?’ because it makes all of the difference in the world right now,” Hiestand said. “It’s really unfortunate, but the law does vary significantly from state-to-state.”
Laws that specifically protect students’ First Amendment rights, known as “New Voices” laws, are the best protection for student journalists, Hiestand said. New Voices legislation was introduced in Nebraska in 2019, but did not pass.
On Aug. 29, the ACLU of Nebraska issued a letter to district superintendent Jeff Edwards, calling the elimination of the Saga an infringement on the student’s constitutional rights and demanding the newspaper’s reinstatement.
Edwards wrote in an Aug. 31 statement that the Saga was temporarily paused, not canceled, and that the decision wasn’t based on a single reason. Neither the superintendent nor the school principal responded to a request for comment by the Tracker.
Since 2017, the Tracker has documented seven high school newspapers censored or subjected to prior review for their coverage of controversial topics.
If not reinstated, the 2022-2023 school year will mark the first time that the Saga hasn’t published since its 1968 launch. Last academic year, the student publication finished third at the Nebraska School Activities Association State Journalism Championship.