- Journalism students at Northwest High School published an LGBTQ-dedicated issue on May 16.
- Three days later, school administrators moved to shut down the paper.
- School officials also told transgender student reporters to use their birth names in their bylines.
A school district in Grand Island, Nebraska, shut down its high school newspaper in June after students published an issue with LGBTQ topics and were previously ordered to use their birth names in their bylines.
As Pride Month approached, journalism students at Northwest High School’s newspaper, Viking Saga, planned to dedicate a few pages on LGBTQ-related subjects for the final issue of the academic year.
The issue which was reviewed by Insider featured an editorial column on the controversial Parental Rights in Education bill in Florida that critics billed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, explored the “science of gender,” and briefly delved into the history of the LGBTQ movement.
The June issue was published on May 16 before the last day of school.
Three days later, a notification was sent to staff and students saying that the newspaper was being shut down, The Grand Island Independent first reported. A school district administrator then canceled the Saga’s printing services on May 19, according to the local news outlet.
The district employee said in an email to The Independent that they were told “the (journalism and newspaper) program was cut because the school board and superintendent are unhappy with the last issue’s editorial content.”
Northwest Public Schools Board Vice President Zach Mader told the news outlet that there has been consideration of getting rid of the newspaper if “we were not going to be able to control content that we saw (as) inappropriate.”
“The very last issue that came out this year, there was… a little bit of hostility amongst some,” Mader said. “There were editorials that were essentially, I guess what I would say, LGBTQ.”
Mader did not immediately respond to Insider for a request for comment.
Mike Hiestand, the senior legal counsel at the Student Press Law Center who has been in touch with the Northwest High journalism students and staff, described the incident as a textbook case of censorship.
“It made (school administrators) uncomfortable,” he said. “I think they were concerned with perhaps community reaction to it, I’m not sure,” Hiestand told Insider. “But their response to things that the students were writing, that they didn’t like, was simply to shut the entire program down. You don’t see a much more aggressive form of censorship than that.”
School administrators previously intervened with the Saga’s editorial decisions.
Around April, the school notified the journalism and yearbook program to use their birth names for their bylines instead of their preferred names, Hiestand said.
The journalism class had at least three students who were transgender, The New York Times reported.
One student reporter, Marcus Pennell, who identifies as a transgender man, had to revert to his birth name, Meghan, for his byline in the final issue, in which he wrote an editorial on the Florida bill.
“The (name) thing was the first big blow,” he told The Independent.
A former student who was in the classroom at the time told The Times that the school’s reasoning was that using preferred names was “controversial.”
“There is no legal requirement that you have to use your legal name,” Hiestand said. Hiestand was first contacted by the journalism students around the spring because of this incident.
Principal PJ Smith and District Superintendent Jeffrey Edwards did not respond to a request for comment.
The Saga officially shut down in June. Hiestand said many of the students weren’t notified about the changes until they were heading back to school.
On Monday, the Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union asked in a letter to the district to “reinstate” Northwest High’s journalism program and newspaper.
“The District’s unlawful attempts to quash student journalism and student opinions violate students’ rights to freedom of speech and equal protection under the Nebraska and United States Constitutions, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972,” the letter stated.
The incident at Northwest High follows a recent trend in which schools are clamping down on LGBTQ-related content in their school’s newspaper, yearbook, or library.
Earlier this year, school administrators at Lyman High School in central Florida delayed the distribution of yearbooks after they saw a section included photos of students demonstrating against the state’s Parental Rights in Education bill that was signed in March.
A spokesperson for the district said the yearbook did not follow school board policy because the protest was not a school or district-sponsored event.
In August, the Alpine School District in Utah temporarily pulled 52 books from its library, most of them touching upon LGBTQ themes, following parent complaints, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
The Saga has been in print for 54 years, according to The Independent.
Northwest High students who were previously enrolled in the school’s journalism program for the new academic year were placed in other classes.
It’s not yet clear if the district will reinstate another journalism program or newspaper.
The district board met in a special meeting on Tuesday to discuss the matter. Hiestand said there have not been any updates.
“I’ve been in this job for a little over 30 years now, and this whole issue of bans on preferred names in student media and that sort of thing — that is entirely new,” Heistand said. “That just came out of right field. It’s never been an issue before but now all of a sudden it is.”