Nebraska school district faces lawsuit for censoring student paper over LGBTQIA+ content

Nearly a year after Northwest School District officials first censored and shut down the Viking Saga student newspaper for publishing stories covering the LGBTQIA+ community, the matter is now going to court. 

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

Student journalists from the Saga initially contacted the Student Press Law Center’s legal hotline in April 2022 when, after they had published Pennell’s preferred name in his byline, school officials told them they had to use legal names and pronouns in stories and bylines moving forward. 

Just a month later, school officials decided to shut down the paper and the school’s journalism class after the Saga ran stories addressing LGBTQIA+ issues. Those included an editorial opposing the Parental Rights in Education bill in Florida commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, an op-ed about gender and a story describing the history of Pride month and homophobia.

When Grand Island Independent reporter Jessica Votpika first broke the story that officials were shutting down the Saga, the incident received national attention

After connecting with SPLC on the issue, the ACLU of Nebraska sent a letter on Aug. 29 to Edwards. The letter demanded the district reinstate the Saga and the school’s journalism program; implement policies to protect LGBTQIA+ students; implement viewpoint neutral policies to make sure the journalism program receives proper legal consideration; and publicly address and apologize for their actions against the Saga.

Jane Seu, ACLU of Nebraska Legal and Policy Counsel, said it’s now time to take the next step. 

“Now we’re at a point where we have to litigate, to really hold those folks accountable and to get declaration that these rights were violated,” Seu said. “Students’ rights and their speech rights are a big deal, and we’re serious about any infringement that the students are going to face.” 

Pennell has been at the forefront of this issue, advocating for Northwest student journalists’ free speech rights since spring 2022. 

Pennell said he hopes standing up to the district and holding them accountable as a young advocate will encourage other student journalists to feel comfortable pursuing stories about issues that matter to them, without fear of censorship.

“It’s definitely been kind of scary. There obviously has been backlash from different people and different groups, but it’s just an honor to be able to advocate for the people I care about and my community in a way that really matters to me,” Pennell said.

NHSPA Executive Director Michelle Hassler said her organization’s involvement in this lawsuit serves NHSPA’s main mission: to support student journalists and educators across the state.

“We didn’t take this step lightly,” Hassler said. “We were very troubled by this case and felt like it had serious ramifications for all of scholastic journalism in the state and that it was important to make a stand.”

SPLC Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand said student press freedom lawsuits are few and far between. Now that Pennell and the NHSPA filed their initial complaint, the next step is gathering any documentary evidence and talking to the various players as part of the pre-trial preparation, Hiestand said.

“A big part of this case is to determine why school officials first censored the award-winning student newspaper and then shut down the journalism program,” Hiestand said. “I think ACLU lawyers will also try and find any evidence to explain why school officials replaced their super-qualified journalism adviser with someone who had no journalism education experience. Determining the motivation of school officials is key. While officials can generally make curriculum and personnel changes, they can’t do so for unlawful reasons, which is what is being alleged here.”

While the lawsuit plays out in court, students at Northwest High School can now take a journalism class again. But the school assigned a new adviser, and the staff is publishing less frequently in a fully digital format. As of April, they had only published one issue for the spring semester.  

Former Saga adviser Kirsten Gilliland will be starting a new job after this school year ends, but she said she hopes this lawsuit has a positive result for student journalists at the school.

“Overall, I hope for a good outcome for Marcus and support for Marcus in all that he has been through and is continuing to go through with this,” Gilliland said. “I will be at a different school next school year, so I won’t be around to physically see the changes and be a part of those. But I hope that the Northwest journalism program can continue to grow and gain support.”