In May of 2022, Marcus Pennell published an article regarding Florida’s “don’t say gay” law to a newly created LGBTQ-dedicated section of his high school newspaper. The new column, which would feature two stories, discussed the school’s administration declaring a new rule, which stated that students were required to be referred to by their birth names and the pronouns that aligned with their sex rather than their gender identity. Administration at Northwest High School claimed the new rule was due to preferred names and pronouns being “too controversial.”
After releasing two articles that shocked the school board, Superintendent Jeff Edwards and the administration made the decision to cut the program in June, only one month after the LGBTQ articles had been published. The paper, the Viking Saga, had been in print for 54 years and had a staff of 15 students.
Northwest High School is a part of the Northwest Public Schools system in Grand Island, Nebraska, and is not a private or religiously affiliated school. The school has declined to speak with the media regarding this issue.
Northwest High School has set a terrifying precedent, which is that schools have the ability to censor their students on the basis of their own comfortability. The discontinuation of the Viking Saga was not due to an offensive or oppressive article, nor was it due to a violation of any school policies or rules. The school has denied their journalism students the right to freedom of press simply because they do not feel that the content their students were posting was “appropriate.”
The school violated their students’ freedom of speech, and their oppressive nature could lead to greater consequences for other students in the surrounding areas. Northwest High School set the expectation that schools now have the right to censor their students, and they can do so without real reason.
This is not the first debate of whether or not students have the right to freedom of press in school affiliated papers. In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the Supreme Court made the decision that schools have a right to censor students, but only if the school can prove it is for a reasonable educational purpose.
The issue at hand with the Viking Saga, and superintendent Edwards’ decision to cut the program, is that it was done so without a reasonable purpose. The Supreme Court found in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that some justifiable educational censorship may include “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences,” none of which have been found to apply to the articles published in the Viking Saga.
To revoke the right to freedom of expression of these students is to insinuate that LGBTQ topics are inherently vulgar, mature or inappropriate, which perpetuates a very negative stereotype about the LGBTQ community. It also gives these kids the impression that their identity is shameful, and is something that should be censored.