(LA Blade) For 54 years the Northwest High School student-run newspaper, the Saga, had kept the generations of students who attended informed, entertained, and engaged in their school and its activities.
In fact, according to the local Grand Island Independent newspaper, Northwest High student media, including Saga staffers, earned third place at the 2022 NSAA State Journalism Championship.
Returning students as school started this Fall Semester however will not have the paper to read or use as a resource after school administrators led by Northwest Superintendent Jeff Edwards killed the paper after its staff had published content in the 2022 school year-ending issue of the Saga newspaper, that included student editorials on LGBT topics, along with a news article titled “Pride and prejudice: LGBTQIA+” on the origins of Pride month and the history of homophobia.
The Grand Island Independent reported and which had printed the school paper on its press, was informed in late May that “the [journalism and newspaper] program was cut because the school board and superintendent are unhappy with the last issue’s editorial content.”
On May 22, a Northwest School District employee emailed the Grand Island Independent press and advertising teams to cancel the company’s Northwest Viking Saga printing services. Notification of staff and students of the program’s elimination came May 19, according to the employee. The June issue was printed on May 16.
Then the school district went further and eliminated the high school’s journalism program entirely. When the Grand Island Independent’s Education reporter Jessica Votipka asked Northwest Principal P.J. Smith why the program was shuttered, Smith referred the Independent’s questions to district superintendent Jeff Edwards, who declined to answer the questions of when and why the student paper was eliminated, saying only that it was “an administrative decision.”
According to the Independent’s reporting, Northwest Public Schools Board of Education vice president Zach Mader said there had been previous discussion about eliminating the newspaper if the school board could not control content it deemed inappropriate.
“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.” But he hedged on the actual reason for the demise of the half-century journalism program.
However, school board President Dan Leiser said that the board had little to do with the decision instead saying that the board was “supportive” of Superintendent Edwards’ reasons to get rid of the program and the student newspaper.
The LGBT coverage also had its roots in the Saga’s writing staff as former Saga staff member Marcus Pennell, who is a trans male, was deadnamed in his byline in the last edition in the wake of an earlier conflict with school administrators last April.
The Saga staff was reprimanded in April after publishing preferred pronouns and names in bylines and articles, according to students. District officials told students to use only birth names going forward.
“The [name] thing was the first big blow,” he said.
Pennell said he has been subject to adversity because of being transgender, but hearing directly from the school administrators was different.
“It was the first time that the school had officially been, like, ‘We don’t really want you here,’” Pennell said. “You know, that was a big deal for me.”
Advocates for freedom of the press were angered by what is seen as blatant anti-First Amendment actions taken by Superintendent Edwards on behalf of the Northwest Public Schools Board of Education.
Sara Rips, legal counsel for ACLU of Nebraska noted in her comments to the Independent:
“It sounds like a ham-fisted attempt to censor students and discriminate based on disagreement with perspectives and articles that were featured in the student newspaper.”
Nebraska Press Association attorney Max Kautsch, who specializes in media law in Nebraska and Kansas, noted that press freedom is protected in the U.S. Constitution.
“The decision by the administration to eliminate the student newspaper violates students’ right to free speech, unless the school can show a legitimate educational reason for removing the option to participate in a class … that publishes award-winning material,” Kautsch said. “It is hard to imagine what that legitimate reason could be.”
Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for Student Press Law Center, told the Independent that ending student newspaper programs is becoming a more common form of censorship. The center is a nonpartisan group that advocates for student journalism press freedom.
“You can’t censor a student newspaper you no longer have.”
The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit has been working directly with the Saga’s most recent staff on potential recourse.
SFGN and the Los Angeles Blade are media partners.