CENSORSHIP ALERT: Student paper shut down for LGBTQIA+ coverage

Censorship Alert

04/13/2023 UPDATE: The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Nebraska High School Press Association and former Northwest student Marcus Pennell against Northwest Public Schools and Superintendent Jeff Edwards on March 31. The lawsuit alleges that school officials’ actions against the Saga violated Pennell’s and the NHSPA’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Read the full update.

11/12/2022 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.”

08/26/2022 CENSORSHIP ALERT: Student paper shut down for LGBTQIA+ coverage

School officials at Northwest Public Schools in Nebraska shut down the Viking Saga high school student newspaper on May 19 after the paper published an issue featuring two stories covering LGBTQIA+ issues. Student journalists at the Saga contacted the Student Press Legal Center’s hotline following the censorship of their paper, and have been working closely with SPLC for support. 

Now, their story has made national headlines after local reporter Jessica Votipka published an investigative piece on Aug. 24, looking into the case.

School officials first criticized the Saga in April for publishing student’s preferred pronouns and names in both bylines and in stories. For their final issue of the year, the Saga ran two stories in May the administration claimed were “inappropriate”: A piece covering the history of Pride month and homophobia, and an editorial opposing the Parental Rights in Education law in Florida, commonly known as “Don’t Say Gay.” 

Administrators then shut down the 54-year-old award-winning newspaper along with the related journalism class at Northwest. 

Zach Mader, Northwest Public Schools board vice president, told The Independent he remembers talks of shutting down the student paper should the school district lose the ability to control what they find to be “inappropriate content.”

“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.”

Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at SPLC, said the Saga case is a clear instance of censorship of student press, which has become a growing issue in the state. 

“By far, the number one thing that will get student media censored is a story that criticizes the school or that administrators somehow think makes them look bad,” Hiestand told The Independent.

Hadar Harris, executive director of SPLC, said the censorship and lack of transparency at Northwest is not an isolated case, especially in Nebraska. 

“Nebraska has become a center for a number of egregious censorship cases in recent years, but the Saga’s case also indicates a nationwide trend of administrators increasingly censoring LGBTQIA+ related content, including chosen names and pronouns,” Harris said. “We are increasingly concerned about this trend and hope senators in the state’s unicameral legislature take the necessary steps to ensure censorship against student media does not happen moving forward.”

Some legislators, like Sen. Adam Morfeld, have already been pushing legislation like the Student Journalism Protection Act in Nebraska to counter the censorship trends against student media outlets in the state. 

SPLC condemns Northwest’s acts of censorship toward the Saga and will continue to work with the paper’s student journalists and advisers to ensure their right to a free press.

SPLC has connected students with the Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and will continue by following up with the school district.

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.