Nebraska high school censors student editorial about censorship, and journalism adviser resigns

Three high school students wearing face masks work at laptops at a table.
From left to right, student editors Ramya Iyer, Jaden Taylor and Caleb De La Cruz work in the Westside newsroom in Omaha, Nebraska, Feb. 8, 2021. Photo by Mina Testolin

UPDATE: On Feb. 12, the administration at Westside High School in Omaha, Nebraska censored a student editorial about censorship. The same day, one of the Westside journalism advisers resigned. This came shortly after Westside student journalists testified on Jan. 29 for a bill that would have prevented this censorship.

On Feb. 10, District 66 Superintendent Dr. Mike Lucas sent out a district-wide email titled, “Rumor Control – Student Journalism,” to clarify the district’s stance on prior review at Westside High School. After receiving this email, Will Eikenbary and Ramya Iyer, coordinators of all Westside student publications, wrote an editorial in response, saying Lucas’ email was misleading and arguing they shouldn’t be subject to prior review. 

I resigned because of a year-long assault on student speech and press rights at Westside

According to Iyer, the journalism advisers approved the editorial and sent it to the administration for prior review. On Feb. 12, both advisers were called in for a meeting with Assistant Principal Andrew Wane and Principal Jay Opperman. Later that day, one of the advisers informed Eikenbary and Iyer that they could not publish the editorial. That same day, on Feb. 12, Jerred Zegelis, the other adviser, resigned. 

“I resigned because of a year-long assault on student speech and press rights at Westside,” said Zegelis. “I disagree and I refuse to be associated with a district who chooses prior review over the power and possibility inherent in student voices.” 

Lucas and Wane declined to comment. Opperman did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

After holding the story back for a week, the administration finally approved the editorial to be published. Students didn’t know if they’d be able to run it at all until their adviser informed them right before it was published on Feb. 17. 

That same day, Lucas, Opperman and Wane held a meeting for the entire journalism department in order to address students’ questions. 

I feel like the administration has realized that they did make a mistake and are now trying to cover it up

The student editors who attended this meeting said that the administrators did not provide a clear reason for why the editorial was published after initially being censored. Students added that the administrators claimed they had always wanted the editorial to be published and seemed to blame the advisers for the original decision to suppress it. 

“I feel like the administration has realized that they did make a mistake and are now trying to cover it up,” said Iyer. “But I think what just really, really rubs me the wrong way is the fact that Mike Lucas claims that administration wanted the article published on Thursday itself. And that is just a lie. There’s no other way to put it.”

During the meeting on Feb. 17, Lucas informed the students that the prior review process had been revised: instead of submitting every article for review, it is now up to the adviser’s discretion to submit an article for administrative review. Although Lucas said this revision was made back in January, student editors said they were not informed until this meeting. 

The censorship and Zegelis’ resignation have damaged the spirit of some students. 

They’d rather quit than be a part of the program that administration has tried to suppress

Luke Steiner, the co-editor-in-chief of The Lance, another student publication, said he has talked with many student journalists who are thinking of quitting their publications next year. 

“It’s just really hard to see people feeling like at this point, they’d rather quit than be a part of the program that administration has tried to suppress,” said Steiner. 

Eikenbary added he’s concerned students will self-censor since the administration left them unclear about what needs prior review. 

Iyer, Steiner and Eikenbary were among the several Westside student journalists who testified in support of Legislative Bill 88, before the Nebraska judiciary committee on Jan. 29. If passed, this bill would protect the free press rights of student journalists and their advisers. 

Angelina Pattavina, the co-editor-in-chief of The Lance, said it is important for her to speak up, especially in support of her advisers. Pattavina said Zegelis, who the students refer to as “Z,” played a huge role in her passion for journalism.

“I want to make sure that the truth about Z is what’s coming out and not this lie that the district is saying,” said Pattavina. “Because Z is one of the best people on this Earth that I have ever met. He was a second father to me and he helped me through a lot.”

2/9/2021 — Nebraska high school journalists face delays, self-censorship after newly enforced prior review

NEBRASKA — For more than 40 years, student journalists at Westside High School in Omaha have earned the reputation for producing independent, award-winning journalism about their community. But in 2020, the school district began to enforce prior review, assigning an administrator to review every article before publication. 

Now, students say, their work is affected by delays in approval, a feeling that they are working as public relations agents rather than journalists and self-censorship that is harming their work as reporters. 

In August 2020, school administrators including Superintendent Dr. Mike Lucas called the student editors and journalism advisers to explain that they would begin enforcing prior review. It was announced that Assistant Principal Andrew Wane would review every article before publication. The administrators explicitly stated that school-sponsored student publications are not public forums, according to Westside Community School District’s official board policy 5470. Since the 70s, the school board’s policy has been that school publications are not public forums and that the school may “prevent or restrict publication and production.” But the student publications had acted as a public forum until this point.

Lucas did not respond to multiple requests for comment and Wane refused to comment. 

It’s difficult and frustrating when we spend a lot of time producing content, getting interviews and writing a really great story just for it to see it possibly not ever get published.”

“Right now at Westside, we have the Hazelwood standard, that’s what they’re relying on,” said Mike Hiestand, the Student Press Law Center’s senior legal counsel. “Hazelwood allows school officials to censor where they have this ‘reasonable educational justification for censorship,’ which is just as broad and nebulous as it sounds like. And it creates all sorts of problems.”

The Nebraska state legislature is currently deliberating on Legislative Bill 88, a New Voices bill introduced on Jan. 7, 2021 to protect free speech rights of student journalists as well as their advisers. On Jan. 29, 2021, students and advisers testified before the Nebraska judiciary committee to support LB 88. 

Only 14 states have New Voices laws protecting a free student press.

The problems that come with prior review

Since the administration began to enforce prior review, student editors of multiple publications at Westside have seen many reporters self-censoring. 

“We don’t necessarily know what topics are going to be touchy right off the bat, the district has to tell us that,” said Ramya Iyer, an executive publication coordinator. “But we can only guess and speculate, and then that definitely affects what we’re willing to write about in the first place.”

As the co-editor-in-chief of Westside Wired, the student-run news site, Aayushi Chaudhary said that this year, she has seen a lot of self-censorship among reporters.

“I think that any hesitance from our writers is starting before the stories are getting written,” said Chaudhary. “They feel like it could be a waste of their time if their stories aren’t going to get published, which I would agree with. It’s difficult and frustrating when we spend a lot of time producing content, getting interviews and writing a really great story just for it to see it possibly not ever get published.”

Chaudhary said that politics and COVID-19 seem to be the main reasons behind the administration’s decision to enforce prior review. She said that during their initial meeting, Dr. Lucas referenced an article about defunding the police, for which he was interviewed. 

Mina Testolin, the other co-editor-in-chief of Westside Wired, said that this year has been a disappointment for her. 

“Having to struggle with constantly trying to gain the attention of [Wane], it’s been disappointing,” she said. “At times, Aayushi and I have absolutely felt disrespected. We’re state journalism winners, we produce a lot of content and we need someone who is as excited about all the content we produce on a daily basis and that’s not what we see.” 

Testolin said another big problem is not being able to publish in a timely manner since it takes one to four days for Wane to review an article.

“Prior review has hindered our ability to publish every single day,” said Testolin. “Our content is probably lower quality than what we expected and certainly [than] what we produced last year.” 

I feel like I’m just a PR writer for the district now”

As the co-editor-in-chief of The Lance, the school newspaper, Angelina Pattavina said it’s been difficult for reporters to cover politics because they have become hypersensitive to what the administration would think.

“We didn’t even have a story about the Black Lives Matter protests [during the summer of 2020] and we realized, ‘Well why do we not have that?” said Pattavina. “Is it just because nobody spoke up because they were too afraid to cover it or did nobody think about it? But it was such a big event that it’s hard to say, ‘Well nobody thought about it.'” 

Prior review has not affected all Westside student journalists in the same way. For Jaden Taylor, the editor-in-chief of Sports Journalism, his experience with prior review has been “totally different” — he says he has not run into any issues. Taylor said that Wane has not reviewed a single article written by the Sports Journalism team until two weeks ago, and that was only because Taylor contacted Wane first to get his opinion on an article. 

“We’ve been able to do just about whatever we want,” Taylor said. 

While other student editors have not been able to reach Wane for hours or days, Taylor said, “I’ve never had [Wane] not answer me for more than maybe an hour and a half, ever.”

Taylor said he feels that Wane has been put in a horrible situation of being the middleman in a flawed system.

“Wane is not a person that has any kind of devious mindset towards anything,” he said. “There’s no way one guy, there’s no way Wane, can look at every story and get it out in a timely fashion, that’s just not possible.” 

Meanwhile, other student editors like Chaudhary said she feels like she is working for the school district rather than working as journalists. 

“I feel like it’s a job that I’m doing, not necessarily as a student who enjoys journalism and doing it because I’m passionate about it,” she said. “I feel like I’m just a PR writer for the district now because I feel like that’s sort of the attitude that I’ve fallen into, just with being told, ‘You’re representing the district.'” 

… it feels very strange to have my voice muffled”

As the co-editor-in-chief of The Lance, Luke Steiner echoed this sentiment.

“It’s created a different environment,” he said. “It was our journalism program and now it’s kind of become [the administration’s] journalism program, is what it feels like.”

A new New Voices bill in Nebraska 

Hillary Davis, SPLC’s New Voices advocacy and campaign organizer, said that if LB 88 is passed, all school-sponsored media at public high schools and post-secondary educational institutions in Nebraska would be deemed as public forums. This means that Westside would need to change their current school board policy. 

“Prior review, like they’re engaging in, is condemned by pretty much every educational group in America as a bad idea,” Davis said.

Westside student journalists say their experiences show how harmful prior review can be for young people.

“I think as high schoolers, we always feel like we don’t have much of a voice in any other circumstance, but Westside journalism definitely made me feel like I did, until this year,” said Testolin. “And now, it feels very strange to have my voice muffled the way that it was. Mine and my staff’s.”

Davis said that students in the state will continue to advocate and make calls to legislators until the judiciary committee votes on LB 88.

“It is important for students to realize that they have much more freedom to speak out and actually are protected when it comes to speaking out against censorship,” said Hiestand. “School officials can’t retaliate against them. They are not legally permitted to retaliate against [students] for taking a public stand.” 

Davis said she feels very hopeful and optimistic about the passage of LB 88, since the New Voices bill from last year made it through two out of the three votes needed, and she says support has only grown since then.

“The only thing that’s going to get New Voices bills passed is student voices,” Davis said. “Every single voice has the potential to be the one that tips the scales. You should never assume that your voice is too small or your story is too minor to get involved and to make a difference in your community.”


For students who want to get involved or ask for more information related to New Voices, contact Hillary Davis at hdavis@splc.org.

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