Judge dismisses lawsuit against school that shut down student paper for publishing an LGBTQ+ edition
Author: Molly Sprayregen
A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by trans Nebraska student Marcus Pennell, who alleges his school shut down the student newspaper because it published an edition on LGBTQ+ issues.
“As a graduate, Pennell does not have a legally protected interest in the school’s course offerings, including the newspaper course,” Gerrard wrote, according to Advocate, adding that his legal standing “may have come down to just a matter of days.”
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But he also argued that the school’s paper was run as a “supervised learning experience” rather than a “public forum,” meaning the school has more authority over the content. But he also warned administrators “to remember that policies and decisions to restrict speech in student newspapers, even those operating as nonpublic forums, may run afoul of the First Amendment if they reflect ‘an effort to suppress expression merely because the public officials oppose a speaker’s view.”‘
Rose Godinez, legal director for the Nebraska ACLU, which aided Pennell in the case, told Nebraska Public Media that the organization does not agree with the ruling but that it appreciates “the order emphasizing that this decision is solely related to standing rather than school officials’ conduct. Likewise, we welcome its general warning to school administrators on restricting speech in student newspapers.”
Godinez added, “For now, we plan to take time to discuss this order with our clients. Nothing about this turn of events changes our commitment to ensuring that LGBTQ+ students can learn free of discriminatory retaliation in our schools.”
The controversy began last May, when Northwest High School’s Viking Saga published an edition that addressed several LGBTQ+ issues, including the history of Pride, gender identity, as well as editorials on LGBTQ+ topics.
Three days later, staff and students were told that the Saga would be eliminated. Its contracts with a printing service and a local newspaper for advertising were canceled. A school employee told the printer that the contract was being canceled “because the school board and superintendent are unhappy with the last issue’s editorial content.”
“There [were] some things that were…If [taxpayers] read that [issue], they would have been like, ‘Holy cow. What is going on at our school?’” Northwest Public Schools board Vice President Zach Mader told the Grand Island Independent.
Board President Dan Leiser claimed that “most people were upset they were written,” referring to the articles about LGBTQ+ rights.
In addition to the controversy surrounding content, according to students, Saga staff was reprimanded two months prior after using preferred names and pronouns in the paper and was advised by district officials to use only birth names.
A month later, Pennell wrote an editorial about Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law, which was published in the newspaper’s final LGBTQ+ edition.
“I’m sure this is a revenge tactic from the pronoun thing a month or so ago,” an email from board president Leiser read, sent just after the publication of the LGBTQ+ edition. The email is cited in the lawsuit. “But I’m going back and forth in the field and I just keep getting more and more upset…. I’m hot on this one, because it’s not ok. The national media does the same crap and I’ve had enough of it. No more school paper, in my opinion. You give someone an inch, they take a mile.”
The ACLU of Nebraska then helped Pannell and the Nebraska High School Press Association file a lawsuit against the district and its superintendent, alleging the district violated students’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The district has already agreed to bring the newspaper back digitally, but not in print.
Actual Story on LGBTQ Nation
Author: Molly Sprayregen