As It Happens

A U.S. student newspaper put out an LGBT issue. Then the school shut it down

When Marcus Pennell penned his last editorial for his high school newspaper, he had no idea it would be the 54-year-old publication’s final edition.

Nebraska high school paper prints LGBTQ issue after the school forces transgender writers to use birthnames

Two young people hold up a progress pride flag while standing in front of a building with a viking logo and the words 'Northwest High School.'
Former Viking Saga newspaper staff members Marcus Pennell, left, and Emma Smith, right, display a pride flag outside of Northwest High School in Grand Island, Neb., on July 20. (McKenna Lamoree/The Independent/The Associated Press)

Story Transcript

When Marcus Pennell penned his last editorial for his high school newspaper, the Viking Saga, he had no idea it would be the 54-year-old publication's final edition.

The editorial about Florida's "don't say gay" law was part of a full edition of the student paper dedicated to LGBTQ stories and issues.

Days after the issue hit the stands in May, administrators at Northwest Public Schools in Grand Island, Neb., pulled the plug on its journalism program and shuttered the accompanying newspaper, calling it an "administrative decision."

"You can tell there were definitely some other motives there," Pennell, who has since graduated, told As It Happens guest host Katie Simpson. 

"I definitely think they wanted to silence some of the voices of their LGBT students. And I think it was really bothering them that, you know, we were being allowed to publish what they called 'LGBT content' under the name of the school."

Press freedom advocates, including the Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have condemned the decision. 

The school has directed all questions pertaining to the newspaper's closure to Superintendent Jeffrey E. Edwards, who did not respond to a request for comment from CBC.

The school board's vice-president, Zach Mader, specifically cited the LGBTQ issue in an interview with the the Grand Island Independent, which first broke the story.

Mader said that if a district taxpayer had read the last issue of the Viking Saga, "they would have been like, 'Holy cow. What is going on at our school?"'

The Independent first got wind of the news when a school employee emailed them to cancel the student paper's printing services on May 22 "because the school board and superintendent are unhappy with the last issue's editorial content."

Forbidden from using his name

Pennell says it all started in March, when the principal came to the journalism class to inform the Saga's staff that students would no longer be allowed to use their preferred pronouns, and would have to use their birth names in their bylines, regardless of how they identified.

"Of course, I was devastated," said Pennell, who is transgender. "I had faced some issues with my peers, but coming from the adults at my school, that was a totally different ballgame, you know?"

A square newspaper page with the words 'Viking Saga' in big blue letters at the top, surrounded by rainbows. The first headline reads: 'More than just family.'
The Viking Saga's final issue was dedicated to LGBTQ stories and issues. (Northwest Viking Saga)

That's when the students decided to make their next issue LGBTQ-themed. 

Still, the students didn't want to risk having the paper's sponsorship pulled, so they followed the school's rules. Pennell's final byline is under a name he no longer uses.

Violation of First Amendment: ACLU

The Nebraska ACLU issued a public letter calling the decision to close the paper a violation of students' First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of the press.

The rights organization demanded the school immediately reinstate its journalism program and student newspaper, apologize to the Saga's staff, and adopt new policies to protect LGBTQ journalists and students more broadly.

Having a voice as a student is important.- Marcus Pennell, former writer for the Viking Saga

"The First Amendment protects students' rights to learn free from viewpoint discrimination, meaning school officials cannot make an idea unavailable or deny students an educational opportunity solely because they disagree with an idea," Sara Rips, the ACLU's LGBTQIA+ legal and policy counsel, said in a press release.

"In this case, school officials cannot suppress the idea that LGBTQ people belong simply because they do not want students to encounter it. We will continue to explore all available legal remedies to ensure a safe and equitable learning environment where all students' rights are respected."

Censorship at U.S. schools

The Viking Saga shutdown is just one instance of alleged censorship at schools in the United States in recent years.

PEN America, a press freedom organization, estimated in April that more that more than 1,500 book bans were instituted in U.S. schools during the previous nine months, the majority dealing with issues related to race, sexual orientation or gender identity.

In August, a school in Arkansas removed two pages from a high school yearbook that referenced the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and the 2020 election. 

In May, a high school in Florida ordered the censorship of a two-page newspaper spread covering a student walkout over the state legislation that limits the discussion of sexual orientation and gender in elementary schools.

Pennell says it's not fair to deny future generations at Northwest the chance to make a newspaper.

"Having a voice as a student is important. And definitely the paper also helps, like, inform other students about things that are going on in the world," he said. "By shutting the program down, they're definitely denying a lot of students a great opportunity."

He says he hopes the school will reconsider. But in the meantime, he's happy to have graduated and moved on after what he calls "a rough four years."

Asked if he has a message for next year's LGBTQ students, he said: "It does get better. And even though it might not seem like there's ever going to be a place that will accept you, there will be."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Marcus Pennell produced by Chris Trowbridge.

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