School district threatened with lawsuit after shutting down student newspaper over LGBTQ2S+ coverage

The ACLU claimed the district “blatantly violated” the U.S. constitution

A U.S. school district is potentially facing legal action after shutting down a student newspaper for printing a handful of pro-LGBTQ2S+ articles.

On August 29, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a five-page letter demanding that Northwest Public Schools in Grand Island, Nebraska, allow the Viking Saga to resume publication after it was abruptly shuttered in May. The letter said that Superintendent Jeff Edwards and the rest of the board “blatantly violated” the U.S. constitution by shutting down the award-winning Northwest High School newspaper, which had operated for 54 years.

“The District’s unlawful attempts to quash student journalism and student opinions violate students’ rights to freedom of speech and equal protection under the Nebraska and United States Constitutions, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972,” reads the letter, which was sent by the ACLU’s Nebraska office.

Other demands included in the letter include an apology to the Viking Saga and a plan of action as to how the district intends to protect student journalists in the future, according to the Lincoln, Nebraska, news outlet KOLN

According to the ACLU of Nebraska, the school board engaged in viewpoint discrimination by retaliating against Northwest High School’s journalism program over pro-LGBTQ2S+ speech. In May, the newspaper published two stories tied to Pride Month: a feature on the history of the LGBTQ2S+ movement and an op-ed opposing Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law.

“The way that viewpoint discrimination works is, it doesn’t really matter if the school officials don’t like LGBTQ2S+ people,” Sara Rips, senior legal and policy counsel for ACLU Nebraska, told the Grand Island Independent newspaper. “[Students] have a right to voice their opinions.”

While the ACLU of Nebraska did not confirm whether it intends to move forward with litigation should the school district not comply, the civil rights advocacy group has asserted that the legal system is on its side. The Supreme Court ruled in the 1974 case Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo that the constitution protects the editorial freedom of student journalists. 

Northwest Public Schools has yet to respond to the demand letter and has largely been silent on the controversy as the Viking Saga shutdown continues to garner widespread media attention. When contacted by the Independent, Edwards declined to comment, offering only that it was an “administrative decision.”

Students at Northwest High School said that the situation resulted from a months-long standoff that began when the Viking Saga was forced to deadname trans journalists on the paper. According to the New York Times, Principal P.J. Smith informed students in March that the publication must henceforth print bylines under journalists’ birth names, a decision that reportedly impacted three trans students on staff.


Marcus Pennell, who was forced to publish his “Don’t Say Gay” op-ed for the June issue under his uncorrected legal name, said principal’s edict really hurt him. “It was the first time that the school had officially been, like, ‘We don’t really want you here,’” Pennell told the Independent. “You know, that was a big deal for me.”

Smith has not commented to the press regarding the situation, referring journalists to the school district for a statement. 

While administrators are keeping mum, a member of the board confirmed that the newspaper was, indeed, shut down because of its pro-LGBTQ2S+ content. Board vice president Zach Mader told the Independent that there “a little bit of hostility amongst some” regarding the articles and suggested that Northwest Public Schools had previously discussed taking action against the Viking Saga

“I do think there have been talks of doing away with our newspaper if we were not going to be able to control content that we saw [as] inappropriate,” he said. 

Had local taxpayers seen the articles published in support of the LGBTQS+ community, Mader added that he believes there would have been an even bigger uproar than the one the district is currently embroiled in. “They would have been like, ‘Holy cow. What is going on at our school?’” he said.

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an award-winning reporter and editor, and former contributing editor at Xtra. Their work has been featured in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Washington Post, Vox, BuzzFeed, Jezebel, The Guardian, Out, The Advocate, and the L.A. Times.

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