Grand Island, Nebraska is a quiet city. Nestled in the center of the state, the town’s population nearly doubles in size once a year when tourists travel in for the annual sandhill crane bird migration. But once the birds leave, so does the noise. That is until earlier this year when a local high school’s award-winning newspaper and journalism program garnered national attention for being abruptly “paused” after they published an LGBTQ pride issue.
Marcus Pennell, a former student, and trans columnist for the Northwest High School’s Viking Saga newspaper, said the pride issue was the first published after students were told by the school board they could no longer use names not on their birth certificates. “We kind of knew what the administration was trying to do, taking our names and pronouns away, so we wanted to make a stand while still following the rule,” Marcus said.
The student journalists told Teen Vogue that after they received the school board directive, the newspaper staff decided to dedicate their June issue to LGBTQ topics, including student editorials on LGBTQ subjects, and a news article titled, “Pride and prejudice: LGBTQIA+” on the origins of Pride Month and the history of homophobia, according to The Grand Island Independent, which first reported the story.
“When I read the GI Independent article, it seems the administration as much as admitted it cut the program because the student paper published pro-LGBTQ content,” said Max Kautsch, a First Amendment attorney and hotline counsel to the Nebraska Press Association. “If true, such a decision is retaliatory viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment rights of every student who was enrolled in the class for this academic year.”
Superintendent Jeff Edwards, and current principal P.J. Smith, did not respond to requests seeking comment, but Edwards told The Grand Island Independent that suspending the paper and program was an “administrative” decision, and one not based on “one or two articles.” Edwards reportedly said there had been talks about stopping the paper prior to the pride issue. While Zach Mader, the board’s vice president, told the Independent, “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.”
But for Pennell and his classmates, the decision was not shocking. The paper, which had nine students on staff and had been in print for 54 years, covered the school’s 700 students. Pennell said the queer community at the school is strong, but not everyone is accepting.
“The queer students at Northwest definitely built their own community out of not having one,” Pennell said. “I wish I could say I was more surprised about their blatantly transphobic decision, but I knew a lot of people in my community were pretty upset over me just being myself.”