U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Nebraska high school newspaper, class shuttered after publishing LGBTQ content

Incident Details

Date of Incident
May 22, 2022
The Viking Saga
Case number
Case Status
Type of case

Other Incident

October 16, 2023 - Update

Judge dismisses lawsuit against Nebraska school district for shuttering student newspaper

A Nebraska judge on Oct. 16, 2023, dismissed the lawsuit filed against the Northwest Public School District in Grand Island after it terminated a student newspaper.

The Northwest High School newspaper, The Viking Saga, was shuttered and the related journalism class canceled in November 2022 after it published an edition featuring three LGBTQ+ articles. The school district ultimately reinstated the class and newspaper, but not in print form.

Student journalist Marcus Pennell and the Nebraska High School Press Association filed the lawsuit, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, in March 2023. The suit argued that the termination violated Pennell’s First and Fourteenth amendment rights.

Senior District Judge John Gerrard dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that Pennell had graduated before the decision to shut down the newspaper was made, and therefore could not prove that he was harmed. Gerrard also ruled that the student paper was “a supervised learning experience” and therefore subject to administrative review.

However, Gerrard cautioned the district against retaliating against speech it doesn’t like.

“School administrators would be wise to remember that policies and decisions to restrict speech in student newspapers, even those operating as nonpublic forums, may run afoul of the First Amendment if they ‘reflect an effort to suppress expression merely because the public officials oppose a speaker’s view,’” Gerrard wrote.

March 31, 2023 - Update

A former student reporter, state high school press association file suit against Nebraska school district for shuttering student newspaper

The Nebraska High School Press Association and a former student reporter filed a lawsuit against a Nebraska school district for terminating the student newspaper, the Viking Saga.

In November 2022, The Viking Saga at Northwest High School in Grand Island, Nebraska, was shuttered for publishing LGBTQ-focused content. The school district promised to reinstate the paper shortly thereafter, but not in print.

According to court records reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a lawsuit was filed on March 31, 2023, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska. The suit argued that the termination violated the student reporter’s First and Fourteenth amendment rights.

November 11, 2022 - Update

Nebraska school district reinstates high school newspaper, shuttered after LGBTQ issue, with caveats

A Nebraska school district announced on Nov. 11, 2022, it would reinstate the student newspaper at Northwest High School in Grand Island after it was shuttered at the end of the last school year for publishing LGBTQ-focused content.

Kirsten Gilliland, the adviser and teacher for The Viking Saga newspaper program, told the Grand Island Independent the Saga would return in digital format for the upcoming spring semester. Gilliland also confirmed she would not return to her adviser position, as the role was offered to another teacher.

The district superintendent did not respond to requests for comment from the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, which called the paper’s initial suspension an infringement on the student’s constitutional rights, told the Independent that the school district could do more.

“In addition to the reinstatement of the school paper and its program, we asked for the development and implementation of policies to protect LGBTQ students for policies that would be both reasonable and viewpoint neutral to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” ACLU attorney Rose Godinez said.

May 22, 2022

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 adviser 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.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].