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A high school newspaper in Nebraska was shut down after it published LGBTQ stories

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When the school year started, Northwest High School in Grand Island, Neb., students signed up for the usual offering of elective classes - choir, band, yearbook. But if they wanted to sign up to be on the student newspaper, the Viking Saga, they were out of luck.

MARCUS PENNELL: Everyone's lost their opportunity to get to write for an amazing paper.

MARTIN: This is Marcus Pennell. He was a student reporter on the Viking Saga at Northwest, an award-winning school paper that had been around for 54 years.

PENNELL: And we did really good at the last state contest, too. We took home third place.

MARTIN: Marcus graduated from Northwest High last May and is now a freshman at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, studying English.

How far away is that from home?

PENNELL: Like 2 hours. It's not too bad (laughter).

MARTIN: See, that's, like, perfect, because you can still go home...

PENNELL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...And, like, make your parents cook for you. And you're still far enough away that they can't just, like, pop in.

PENNELL: Yeah. So true. You're right. Yeah. It's basically been perfect.

MARTIN: Marcus' last few months at Northwest were anything but.

PENNELL: So (laughter) I'm queer. So you know, originally, when I started writing for the paper, I was in the closet. And, you know, I kind of kept that to myself. But as I kind of grew more comfortable with myself and with - you know, with my surroundings and everything, I changed five letters in my name. So basically, instead of putting by Meghan Pennell in my stories, I would put by Marcus Pennell.

MARTIN: That started with the paper's March issue.

And what was the reception like from your friends, from your family, from your school?

PENNELL: You know, of course, to most people, it just made sense. Like, you know, that was what I was being called in person for the most part. So it kind of just seemed like a fitting - you know, a fitting change. But then our principal came in. And he said, the school board would not be allowing us to publish under any name that wasn't on our birth certificate anymore.

MARTIN: What did it feel like to be forced to then publish in the paper under your dead name?

PENNELL: Right. You know, it was a big deal for me. It was, you know, pretty terrible (laughter). I'd faced a lot of stuff from, like, my peers and even from a couple of teachers. But this had been, like, the first, like, official kind of thing from the school that was kind of saying, you know, like, we don't really want you here. Like, you can't really be yourself here.

MARTIN: Marcus and his classmates at the paper had already been planning to focus their last issue of the year on LGBTQ issues. There were three articles - one on the difference between sex and gender, one on the history of the gay rights movement and an op-ed on Florida's so-called Don't Say Gay bill.

PENNELL: Then, of course, you know, I got a call around June from our sponsor saying that the program had been shut down. So...

MARTIN: The program meaning the whole newspaper? The student newspaper was being shut down?

PENNELL: Yes. The - specifically, the newspaper class would not be offered anymore as part of, like, the curriculum.

JESSICA VOTIPKA: I'm Jessica Votipka. I have been the education reporter, among other things, for the Grand Island Independent.

MARTIN: Votipka got a heads up about what was happening at the paper early in the summer in the form of a Post-it note on her desk.

VOTIPKA: It said it was from a parent. It was anonymous. It discussed that the newspaper had been shut down abruptly, that there had been some issues with preferred names and pronouns.

MARTIN: Eventually, she got a few students to come in for interviews. They talked about being bullied at school and on social media because of their gender identity.

VOTIPKA: And Marcus broke down. And, you know, he was a senior. Well, he had just graduated. And he wasn't crying for himself. He said, I'm just worried about the LGBTQ students that aren't graduating, that are left behind. He's like, I just hope someone will be there for them.

MARTIN: The school board, principal and superintendent have refused to explain to the students, the faculty or the community exactly why they shut down the Viking Saga newspaper. We asked several members of the school board, the principal and the superintendent of the district the same thing. And all our phone messages and emails went unanswered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARY REHBERG: Your lack of transparency is causing mistrust. And it leads and encourages negative speculation.

MARTIN: This is Gary Rehberg (ph), a former journalism teacher at Northwest High School. He was one of several former staff members and alumni who defended the Viking Saga at a recent school board meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REHBERG: And this I hate saying the most. I've always been proud of saying that I taught at Northwest High School. I'm less proud of that now.

MARTIN: Northwest Public School Board Vice President Zach Mader told the Grand Island Independent that there had been, quote, "talks of doing away with the paper if we were not going to be able to control content that we saw as inappropriate." There were students who had a problem with the paper, too, though. A school staff member told NPR that after the final issue came out featuring those three LGBTQ articles, some students made public comments in class saying they wanted to take it home and burn it. The same staff member told us the decision to close the paper violates the rights of queer students and makes them even more vulnerable to bullying. The staff member didn't want to reveal their name for fear of retribution from the school district. Across the country, school officials have a lot of discretion over what can and can't be published in a school paper.

MIKE HIESTAND: My name is Mike Hiestand. I am senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center. The law was pretty clear that - dating back to a 1969 case called Tinker that said that as long as the speech didn't result in a serious disruption of normal school activity, so as long as it was lawful, as long as it was peaceful, that was pretty much where the bar was. But 1988, that changed. And the Supreme Court said that school officials could censor school-sponsored student newspapers where they had a reasonable educational justification.

MARTIN: Reasonable educational justification is pretty vague. The Student Press Law Center, where Hiestand works, is a national student press advocacy group. And he told me they have seen a roughly 50% increase in the number of calls to their hotline from last year over LGBTQ censorship issues, especially when it comes to how students identify themselves in high school newspapers and yearbooks.

HIESTAND: We are seeing these sorts of things. I mean, I know advisers. We work with a lot of, you know, student journalism teachers who advise student newspapers and other student media. And they're terrified. I mean, they don't know what some of these laws - they're telling them, you know, they can't talk about, you know, certain topics. And very often, they're the topics that student journalists are, you know, putting on their front page because they're the things that make news.

MARTIN: Student papers are being censored at the same time that school districts around the country are banning books that center LGBTQ people and their experiences. And teachers are being limited in how they can talk about gender and sexuality in the classroom. So where does all this leave the journalism students at Northwest High School in Grand Island, Neb. They're in a holding pattern right now. A new nonprofit called We Will Press organized itself after the student paper was closed. They're offering journalism mentoring services to local students. Meanwhile, the state ACLU sent a letter to the school district in Grand Island demanding that they reinstate the paper and affirm their commitment to protecting LGBTQ students at their schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVAL CONSOLES' "STILL HERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.