A Nebraska high school newspaper and its journalism department were eliminated by administrators days after the school's year-end issue in May included a story about Pride month and the history of homophobia.
On May 19, Northwest High School staff and students were notified the 54-year-old Viking Saganewspaper was abruptly canceled after the June edition of the paper included an article titled, “Pride and prejudice: LGBTQIA+," that covered LGBTQ+ rights.
The paper also included an editorial about Florida's ban on the discussion and lessons of LGBTQ+ themes in classrooms, known by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill.
Students and press freedom advocates are calling the sudden cancellation of the Viking Saga an act of censorship and a violation of First Amendment rights.
“The very last issue that came out this year, there was… a little bit of hostility amongst some ... There were editorials that were essentially, I guess what I would say, LGBTQ.”
“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."
Referring to the final issue of the Viking Saga, Mader added:
“There [were] some things that were…If [taxpayers] read that [issue], they would have been like, ‘Holy cow. What is going on at our school?’”
News of the cancellation came a month after the newspaper's staff was reprimanded for using students' preferred pronouns and names.
District officials told the students they had to use assigned birth names moving forward.
Emma Smith, the Saga Viking’s assistant editor in 2022, said the school board made the decision to ban preferred names, which directly affected staff writer Marcus Pennell, a transgender student, whose deadname was used against his wishes in the June issue of the paper.
"It was the first time that the school had officially been, like, ‘We don’t really want you here'. You know, that was a big deal for me.”
According to the Independent, a "Northwest School District employee emailed the Grand Island Independent press and advertising teams to cancel the company’s Northwest Viking Saga printing services" on May 22–which was three days after students and staff were notified of the cancellation.
In the email, the Northwest employee said:
"The [journalism and newspaper] program was cut because the school board and superintendent are unhappy with the last issue's editorial content.”
District officials have not provided the exact date of when they made their decision, nor have they provided an official reason for the cancellation of the paper.
Sara Rips, legal counsel for ACLU of Nebraska told 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."
Dan Leiser, the Northwest Public Schools Board of Education President said of the LGBTQ+ related articles in the June issue “most people were upset they were written,” but didn't specify who "most people" were.
He questioned whether canceling the paper based on editorial content would've mattered.
“If 90% of people say the (stories) shouldn’t have been written in the first place, they weren't happy with reading it in the newspaper—I’m not talking me, I'm talking high school students—why do you think this is newsworthy?”
Nebraska Press Association attorney Max Kautsch–who specializes in media law in Nebraska and Kansas–said:
“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."
“It is hard to imagine what that legitimate reason could be."