Nebraska high school journalist refuses to back down, publishes her censored article on Confederate flags and racism at school in local paper

A student truck at North Platte High School, Nebraska displays the Confederate flag in the school parking lot. A student stole one of these flags, and another wrote a story about the incident. (George Lauby/The North Platte Bulletin)

Correction: Scott Siegel’s name was incorrectly spelled in an earlier version of this article. It has been corrected.

NEBRASKA — In September, Jessica Mathieu, a senior at North Platte High School, in southwest Nebraska, stole a Confederate flag from another student’s pickup truck parked in the school parking lot. She posted a video on social media acknowledging that she had stolen the flag, saying, “I know what I did was wrong, but what you’re doing is worse. You’re making people at your school feel like they’re not welcome.” 

She was later charged by police with criminal mischief and unjust stealing.

The week following the incident, Senior Sophia Walsh, Editor-in-Chief of The Bulldogger, pursued the newsworthy story. Walsh investigated, reported and turned in her piece for edits. After multiple back-and-forths with the principal, and after repeatedly being stonewalled and ultimately censored, Walsh published the piece in the local paper instead. 

More than just a flag

Walsh interviewed Mathieu and other students across campus and the administration, and learned that the story was far more complex than simple theft of the flag. Walsh learned that before Mathieu stole the flag, a group of high school students had begun congregating in the school parking lot on Fridays, cars and trucks adorned with pro-Trump, Gadsden and Confederate flags. Mathiu said she stole the flag because, senior Jahmani Sterling, had told her that some of the students with the flags had used racial slurs against him and his brother, both Black students from Jamaica. As Walsh dug further, she learned that Sterling was one of several Black students who reported experiencing racism at school, including in classrooms. 

One student shared that in class one day, a group of white students was playing a game of hangman while the teacher was out of the room. The phrase used? “I can’t breathe.”

During her initial investigation, which the administration believed was solely about the theft of the Confederate flag, Walsh received no pushback from the administration. But after Walsh submitted the article to Principal Scott Siegel, for prior review, she hit a wall. Siegel sent back a first draft to Walsh and marked multiple changes that he said needed to be made prior to publication. She made the revisions and sent it back to him for another round of review. Walsh said that after that, the administration started blatantly stonewalling.

 Lori Larson, the adviser for the newspaper, told Walsh that Siegel was unhappy with the piece and referenced “inaccuracies.” 

“We searched the story and made sure we credited our sources and made sure to back up what facts we had with credible sources. Then he asked us to share our interview files with him, which we did not,” Walsh stated emphatically. After Walsh pressed for clarification on what Siegel felt was “inaccurate,” Siegel called Larson in for a meeting. After that, Walsh said Larson appeared visibly shaken, and became suddenly reluctant to have the story published in any form. 

Walsh said the meeting caused Larson “to feel scared about where she was job-wise, and made her visibly more reluctant about the story.” Larson subsequently told Walsh that her article was no longer “timely,” and she should “move on.” It had been three weeks since she initially turned in her article for review. 

Siegel defended his actions, saying in an email that the article was not censored. “In this instance, there were multiple errors and non-factual statements that were addressed with the staff member overseeing our journalism department. Instead of addressing these concerns, the staff member decided to not move forward with the articles.” He continued, “Had said articles been resubmitted after addressing these concerns, they would have been approved.” 

Larson declined to be interviewed, saying that she was told by the district’s communication director, Tina Smith, that she was not allowed to comment. 

Walsh thinks the administration decided to withhold the article, not Larson. Walsh says she was frustrated and confused by Siegel’s vague criticisms of the piece, because they prevented her from publishing it without telling her what to fix.

“We really just played a guessing game on what needed fixing for each revision,” Walsh said. 

Siegel initially agreed to be interviewed for this story, but then backed out. Smith stated that the district had “no additional information to add to the story.”

Walsh steadfastly defends her reporting as thorough, and says, like any good reporter, she aimed to be as balanced as possible. She interviewed multiple students across campus, including some of the students with the Confederate flags, and others involved directly and peripherally. In addition to the feature piece she was writing, Walsh delegated other reporters to do related pieces detailing the history of the Confederate flag and the flag as a symbol.

After a few weeks of stonewalling, Walsh took matters into her own hands.

Who exactly does the First Amendment protect at North Platte?

Walsh began reporting in June for the local paper, The North Platte Bulletin. After Siegel censored Walsh’s article in October, she asked George Lauby, editor-in-chief and owner of the paper if he would publish her piece about the flag in The Bulletin. Lauby had previously published a story on the theft of the flag and circumstances surrounding it after being contacted by Mathieu. He read Walsh’s piece, and immediately agreed it was newsworthy and well reported. On October 10, “When the Confederate flags fly, people talk” went to print.

“We publish information, that’s our job, that’s what we do,” said Lauby. “A newspaper’s job is to inform decision makers. If the decision makers want to control the message and ignore things, they are missing out on a bunch.”  

Walsh says that her article’s aim was not to inflame, but to inform. She wanted to cover the important story of racism occurring on her high school campus from as many perspectives as possible. She also wanted to educate readers on the background of the history of the Confederate flag itself as a symbol of many things to many people. Her school ultimately refused to allow her to report on the flag from any angle. 

Ironically, calls for the removal of the flags on school property were initially dismissed by the administration as attempts at censorship. And there were many calls for its removal. 500 people signed a petition. 

In Walsh’s article, Siegel responded to the petition, and was quoted as saying “We have to make sure we’re allowing those freedoms, but then also protecting students at the same time,” 

Siegel defended the First Amendment rights of the students who flew the Confederate flag while denying freedom of speech and press to the student journalists who tried to cover it.

When asked about the decision to censor Walsh’s story, Siegel said in an email, “school newspapers in Nebraska operate under a different set of guidelines and oversight than private/for-profit media entities.” 

He’s correct. Because of the landmark 1988 Supreme Court case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, high school administrators in most U.S. states can censor student journalists for anything “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” This broad and vague standard is why North Platte High administrators were able to legally censor a story they felt cast the school in an unfavorable light.

But this could change if Nebraska passes the New Voices bill it’s currently considering. Nebraska state senator Adam Morfeld sponsored LB 88, legislation to protect student press freedom in Nebraska. If advanced, high school and college journalists in Nebraska would enjoy protection from the kind of prior restraint that Walsh experienced. 

To date, only 14 states have passed New Voices laws to protect student press freedom. 

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