UPDATE: The Viking Saga will return in the spring semester in a digital format. Kirsten Gilliland, adviser to the Saga, said she will not be returning to her position, as the adviser position “has been offered to another teacher.”
09/02/2022 Cautiously optimistic: Pushing for full reinstatement of the Viking Saga
Hadar Harris, executive director at the Student Press Law Center, shares her thoughts on recent developments in the Viking Saga censorship case in Nebraska, and why there’s reason for hope.
You may have heard about what’s been happening in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Beginning in April, student journalists at the Viking Saga student newspaper at Northwest High School in Grand Island, Nebraska, contacted SPLC attorneys through our free legal hotline. They told us about how school administrators restricted the use of chosen names and pronouns in student bylines and articles, and censored student-produced stories particularly focused on LGBTQIA+ issues.
The Saga then ran two stories in May about LGBTQIA+ issues, which the administration claimed to be “inappropriate.” Days later, administrators shut down the newspaper along with the related journalism class at Northwest.
A summer investigation by local journalist Jessica Votipka resulted in a bombshell story published on Aug. 24 in the Grand Island Independent newspaper. In that story, a school board official and a school employee are both quoted stating that inability to control content and discomfort with recent stories in the Saga caused school officials to close the newspaper.
After national and international news outlets picked up the story, we received numerous calls from lawyers and advocates who wanted to help (not to mention a lot of outraged support for the students.) Among them was the ACLU of Nebraska, which sent a letter to Superintendent Jeff Edwards on Aug. 29. Their letter demanded that the school, among other things, reinstate the Saga.
Two days later, after a special school board meeting, the Superintendent released a statement to the Northwest community saying the student newspaper was not eliminated, but simply “paused,” and that the journalism class may be “added based on student requests.”
Edwards also said the paper’s suspension was not due to the final issue. We know this is not the case. School officials not only continually censored the publication before that final issue, but they are also on the record saying they had been troubled by the newspaper’s content for a long time.
As a result of Votipka’s story that brought attention to the Saga, subsequent widespread media attention and the student journalists’ persistence and bravery, the Saga‘s story is not over. SPLC will continue to support the student journalists at Northwest to fully reinstate their publication.
The (hopefully temporary) shuttering of the Saga is certainly not an isolated issue, but one of many intolerable censorship cases in Nebraska.
We have seen school administrators in Nebraska censor student media again and again. This latest case is another example of Nebraska’s urgent need for New Voices legislation in the state, which would clarify student journalists’ editorial independence and ensure that they can tell their community’s stories without fear of censorship or retaliation.
We know there are many students, parents, teachers and legislators who feel the same way and we hope this latest egregious example of censorship will lead to legislative protections for student journalists when the Unicameral reconvenes.
In the meantime, we look forward to the Saga reopening and continuing its important reporting for the Northwest High School community. We also look forward to seeing how Northwest’s yearbook reports on such a crucial moment for their school, documenting a censorship example that embodies the pressing need for press freedom.
Until then, SPLC’s free legal hotline is readily available and we’ve got the Saga’s back.
The Student Press Law Center (splc.org, @splc) is an independent, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) nonprofit working at the intersection of law, journalism and education to support, promote and defend the rights of student journalists and their advisers at the high school and college levels. Based in Washington, D.C., the Student Press Law Center provides information, training and legal assistance at no charge to student journalists and the educators who work with them.