A new lawsuit alleges a Grand Island high school violated the First Amendment when it shut down a student newspaper for reporting on LGBTQ+ topics, according to a press release from the ACLU of Nebraska.

The lawsuit, filed in federal district court this morning, lists the Nebraska High School Press Association and Marcus Pennell, a transgender, former student and writer for Grand Island Northwest High School’s student newspaper the Viking Saga. The lawsuit lists the Northwest Public Schools District and its superintendent Jeffery Edwards as defendants.

The lawsuit seeks damages as well as declaration the district violated students’ constitutional rights.

According to the lawsuit, Pennell and other students were told they could not list their chosen names or pronouns in their author bylines in March 2022. Then in June, Pennell and other students covered LGBTQ+ stories, along with other pertinent school news. Days later, the ACLU press release says, Pennell and others found out administration was shutting down the paper. The paper has since been revived in an online format with a new advisor, according to the ACLU press release.

As the story became national news, Grand Island Northwest School District Superintendent Jeffery Edwards said in an open letter the decision resulted from multiple factors and had nothing to do with the content of the June issue.

But emails obtained by the ACLU through a public records request show Board of Education President Dan Leiser calling the student’s June reporting “a revenge tactic” related to not allowing students to print their chosen names or pronouns.

“I’m goin[g] back and forth in the field and I just keep getting more and more upset,” wrote Lesier, according to the lawsuit. “No more school paper, in my opinion.

The school board’s vice president also told the Grand Island Independent there was “a little bit of hostility” related to the paper’s “LGBTQ” editorials.

“At a time when so many trans and queer youth are being told to be anyone other than who they are, we are glad to be bringing this case,” ACLU Legal and Policy Counsel Jane Seu said in a statement. “Students have a right to express themselves and participate in school activities free from discriminatory retaliation. What happened to Marcus and his peers should never happen again. 

Pennell said he hopes this story resonates with others like him.

“To the students who would have taken journalism this year, please keep writing,” Pennell wrote in a September 2022 editorial for The Reader. “Although people may try to stop you, just keep writing. Even if you think no one will see it, read it or care about it. Through writing, new ideas become not so new and you can open yourself and those around you up to a world they had never even previously considered. Just because I lost my hope when the Northwest journalism program was cut, doesn’t mean you have to too.”

contact the writer at news@thereader.com

Chris Bowling

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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