Nebraska school officials shut down newspaper over LGBTQ issue

GRAND ISLAND, Nebraska, USA (AP) — Administrators at a Nebraska school shut down the school’s award-winning student newspaper just days after its last edition that featured articles and editorials on LGBTQ issues, prompting advocates freedom of the press to qualify the measure as an act of censorship.

Staff at the 54-year-old Northwest Public Schools Saga newspaper were informed on May 19 of the paper’s removal, the Grand Island Independent reported. Three days earlier, the newspaper had printed its June issue, which included an article titled “Pride and Prejudice: LGBTQIA+” about 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 and which critics call “Don’t say gay.”

Officials who oversee the district, which is based on Grand Island, have not said when or why the decision was made to eliminate student paper. But an email from a school employee to the Independent canceling printing services for the student newspaper on May 22 said it was “because the school board and superintendent are not happy with the editorial content of the latest edition.”

The newspaper’s demise also came a month after its staff were reprimanded for publishing students’ preferred pronouns and names. District officials told the students that they could only use the names assigned at birth in the future.

Emma Smith, assistant editor for Saga in 2022, said the student newspaper was told that the school board made the ban on preferred names. That decision directly affected Saga staff writer Marcus Pennell, a transgender student, who saw his signature changed against his wishes to his birth name “Meghan” Pennell in the June issue.

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“It was the first time the school had officially said, ‘We really don’t want you here,’” Pennell said. “You know, that was a big deal for me.”

Northwest Principal PJ Smith referred the Independent’s questions to District Superintendent Jeff Edwards, who declined to answer questions about when and why the student’s document was removed, saying only that it was “an administrative decision.”

Some school board members have made no secret of their objection to Saga’s LGBTQ content, including board president Dan Leiser, who said “most people were upset” with it.

Board Vice President Zach Mader directly quoted the pro-LGBTQ editorials, adding that if the district’s taxpayers had read the latest issue of Saga, “they would have said, ‘Holy cow. What’s going on in our school?’”

“It sounds like a clumsy attempt to censor students and discriminate based on disagreement with perspectives and articles that appeared in the student newspaper,” said Sara Rips, an attorney with the Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Nebraska Press Association attorney Max Kautsch, who specializes in media law in Nebraska and Kansas, noted that press freedom is protected by the US Constitution.

“The administration’s decision to remove the student newspaper violates students’ right to free speech, unless the school can demonstrate a legitimate educational reason for removing the option to participate in a class… that publishes award-winning material,” Kautsch said. “It’s hard to imagine what that legitimate reason could be.”

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