Grand Island Northwest school district facing federal lawsuit over school newspaper
The school district shut down the “Viking Saga” newspaper last spring after students covered LGBTQ+ topics
GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (KSNB) - Former Northwest school newspaper reporter Marcus Pennell, the Nebraska High School Press Association and the Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the school district in federal court Friday claiming the district violated the First Amendment last year when they shut down the “Viking Saga” school paper. The lawsuit seeks a judge’s declaration that the district violated the First Amendment and damages as the court sees fit. The lawsuit names the Northwest school district and Superintendent Jeff Edwards. The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Lincoln.
Northwest shut down the “Viking Saga” newspaper last spring after students covered LGBTQ+ topics.
In an ACLU press release, the suit claims that in March 2022, plaintiff Marcus Pennell, a transgender student, and others were told they could not list their pronouns or use their chosen names in author bylines. Instead, Pennell and others were forced to use their “legal” names as determined by the school district, an often traumatizing act for trans people that is known as deadnaming.
“It is hard to find words for what it felt like watching people who were supposed to be supporting our education instead silence us for covering issues impacting our lives,” Pennell said. “I was crushed.
In the press release, the ACLU said that in the paper’s June 2022 issue, Pennell and other students covered LGBTQ+ topics to mark Pride Month in addition to a range of unrelated stories. Pennell wrote an article focused on what’s been called Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and the harm of erasure. Days after the June issue went to print, he and his peers learned that the paper was being shuttered.
Although the school district has claimed the decision was unrelated to the June issue, the lawsuit refers to a public comment from a school board official which linked the decision directly to the paper’s content. Zach Mader, vice president of the Northwest Public Schools Board of Education, told the Grand Island Independent there was “a little bit of hostility” related to “editorials that were essentially, I guess what I would say, LGBTQ.”
Internal emails later obtained by the ACLU of Nebraska via a public records request provided further details on the district’s motivation. In an email to the superintendent and others, Board of Education President Dan Leiser called the June issue “a revenge tactic” related to the school’s directive to not print students’ pronouns. “I’m goin[g] back and forth in the field and I just keep getting more and more upset,” he wrote. “No more school paper, in my opinion.”
The lawsuit argues that school officials’ decision to shutter the newspaper violated plaintiffs’ First Amendment free speech rights on three counts: their right to be free of viewpoint discrimination, their right to be free of retaliation and their right to receive information.
Executive Director Michelle Hassler of the Nebraska High School Press Association said in a statement, “Venturing into litigation is not a step that we take lightly. Our involvement hopefully speaks to our level of concern about what happened at Grand Island Northwest and the implications for the students we serve. “
Local4 has contacted Northwest superintendent Jeff Edwards and we are awaiting a response.
The Viking Saga recently restarted in an online format with a new advisor.
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