The Grand Island Northwest School District is facing a federal lawsuit over the school newspaper

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (Nebraska) — Former Northwest School 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 has violated the First L amendment last year when they shut down the school newspaper “Viking Saga”. The lawsuit seeks a judge’s finding that the district violated the First Amendment and the damages the court deems appropriate. The lawsuit names the Northwest School District and Superintendent Jeff Edwards.

Northwest shut down the “Viking Saga” newspaper last spring after students covered LGBTQ+ topics.

In an ACLU press release, the lawsuit says that in March 2022, plaintiff Marcus Pennell, a transgender student, and others were told they could not list their pronouns or use chosen names in authors’ signatures. Instead, Pennell and others were forced to use their “legal” names as determined by the school district, an often traumatizing act for trans people known as deadnaming.

“It’s hard to find the words for what it feels like to look at people who should have been supporting our education instead of silencing us to cover issues that impact our lives,” Pennell said. “I was crushed.

In the press release, the ACLU said that in the June 2022 issue of the paper, Pennell and other students covered LGBTQ+ topics in celebration of Pride Month in addition to a number of unrelated stories. Pennell wrote an article focusing on what was called Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and the harm of cancellation. A few days after the June issue went to press, he and his colleagues learned that the paper had been shut down.

Although the school district said the decision was unrelated to the June issue, the lawsuit references a public comment by a school board official that linked the decision directly to the content of the document. Zach Mader, vice chairman 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 additional details of the district’s motivation. In an email to the superintendent and others, Board of Education chairman Dan Leiser called the June issue “a revenge tactic” related to the school’s policy not to print students’ pronouns. “I’m going[g] back and forth on the field and keep getting angrier and angrier,” he wrote. “No more school papers, in my opinion.”

The lawsuit alleges that the school officials’ decision to shut down the paper violated the plaintiffs’ First Amendment free speech rights on three counts: their right to be free from viewpoint discrimination, their right to be free from 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 we take lightly. Hopefully our involvement speaks to our level of concern about what happened in 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 was recently rebooted into an online format with a new advisor.

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