Marcus Pennell is suing Grand Island Northwest Public Schools and the district’s superintendent for violations of First Amendment rights after the school district shut down Pennell’s high school student newspaper. Pennell holds a June 2022 edition on LGBTQ issues that included an article by Pennell. (Courtesy of Joshua Foo)
LINCOLN — A federal lawsuit alleges Grand Island Northwest Public Schools and its superintendent violated the First Amendment after shutting down a school newspaper days after its staff covered LGBTQ+ topics.
The ACLU of Nebraska filed the lawsuit in federal district court Friday on behalf of the Nebraska High School Press Association and a former student journalist, Marcus Pennell. The lawsuit alleges violations of the rights to be free from viewpoint discrimination and retaliation and the right to receive information.
Pennell said in a statement that it’s “hard to find words” for watching people supposed to support education who instead “silence us for covering issues impacting our lives.”
“I was crushed. Ever since I graduated, I felt I had a responsibility to seek accountability and advocate for the students who are still there, especially the LGBTQ+ kids,” Pennell said. “We have a right to be who we are and to write about our lives. I am hopeful that censorship is not the end of this story.”
District officials shut down Grand Island Northwest High School’s student newspaper, the Viking Saga, last June. One article in that month’s edition, written by Pennell, addressed Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, but other articles were unrelated.
The paper has since been restarted online with a new adviser.
Pennell, a transgender student, and others were told they could not list their pronouns or use their chosen names in author bylines. The Nebraska ACLU states this forced some students to deadname themselves, or using their legal or birth names that they may no longer use — “an often traumatizing act for trans people.”
Officials allege ‘revenge tactic’
School officials have stated the decision to shutter the paper days after the June edition went to print was unrelated to its content.
However, public comments and internal emails suggest otherwise.
Zach Mader, vice president of the Northwest Public Schools Board of Education, told the Grand Island Independent last summer there was “a little bit of hostility amongst some” to the paper.
“There were editorials that were essentially, I guess what I would say, LGBTQ,” Mader said then.
Internal emails obtained by the ACLU include an email in May from Dan Leiser, school board president, to Superintendent Jeffrey Edwards and other school officials.
Leiser said in the email that students should not be allowed to write opinion articles in a publication paid for by taxes because platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok are available.
“They are at school to learn grammar, proper English and writing skills,” Leiser said. “Not use the school as a platform for expressing their opinions, no matter the content of such opinions, especially when the district is funding it.”
Leiser also said he was sure the Viking Saga’s work was a “revenge tactic” for the pronoun policy.
“The national media does the same crap and I’ve had enough of it,” Leiser said in the email. “No more school paper, in my opinion. You give someone an inch, they take a mile.”
‘Right to be yourself’
Nebraska High School Press Association Executive Director Michelle Hassler said in a statement that litigation “is not a step that we take lightly.”
“Our involvement hopefully speaks to our level of concern about what happened at Grand Island Northwest and the implications for the students we serve,” Hassler said. “Our mission is to support and advocate for Nebraska’s high school media, and that’s exactly what this case aims to do.”
Hassler continued that student journalists have a right to learn and hone their skills consistent with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“And they should be able to cover issues that matter to them and their fellow students,” she said.
ACLU Legal and Policy Counsel Jane Seu said in a statement the filing is symbolic of a greater national push against LGBTQ youth, who are “being told to be anyone other than who they are.”
“What happened to Marcus and his peers should never happen again,” Seu said. “We are hoping for a victory that sends a clear message to LGBTQ+ youth: you have a First Amendment right to be yourself and to talk and write about your life.”
Editor’s note: Michelle Hassler is one of this reporter’s professors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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