Freedom of the Press: Northwest journalists left without a voice

Gisele Cestaro and Maya Phillips

Prospective journalists at Northwest High School in Nebraska have been left without a platform to write on this fall, as the 54 year old edition of the Viking Saga has been stripped away by the administration. 

In March 2022, the administration declared a ruling that changed the future of the paper: students can now only use their name given at birth for their byline. In response to this decision, students published pride columns in the following issue, which included an article titled, “Pride and prejudice: LGBTQIA+” and the history of homophobia. Additionally, images of rainbows were depicted to represent pride and allyship towards the LGBTQ+ community. 

The ban of student preferred names directly affected Marcus Pennell, a transgender student and staff writer whose byline was forcefully changed to his birth name, “Meghan.” 

“We knew they were trying to censor LGBT student voices. So we thought just because we can’t put our names in the byline doesn’t mean that we can’t write about our experiences as LGBT students,” Pennell said. The expression of LGBTQ+ rights demonstrated in the June issue would eventually lead to the shutdown of the paper. 

Administration didn’t personally inform the students of the reason behind this major decision and instead sent the advisors as messengers. “It came as a surprise. It’s been a well-respected program and last year we even took third place at the state contest,” Pennell said. 

This hints at a lot of greater problems, which are the implicit ways in which administration has prevented their students from speaking their views and challenging the status-quo,”

— Alexa Murphy

  

The Viking Saga has published articles regarding LGBTQ+ concerns in the past, but the administration didn’t raise an issue until this year. Hearing the news, students have been reaching out to Pennell surrounding the controversy. Pennell is now a freshman at University of Nebraska Omaha. “It just depends on who you hear from but some people didn’t want that content published at our school and others believed that the newspaper shutting down was ridiculous,” Pennell said. Plenty of students who were eager to start the paper have now been assigned to random classes as a filler. 

Publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, have shared the Viking Saga’s story. “It’s been insane. I never thought it would get picked. I honestly thought the paper would get shut down and that would be the end of it.” Pennell said. 

On August 31, 2022 the superintendent addressed a letter to parents and guardians about the status of the paper. The letter denied the claims of the program being shut down due to prejudice, and stated that the journalism program still offered digital media and yearbook as course options. As of now the award-winning Viking Saga has yet to be reinstated. (Tower has reached out to the superintendent for comment, but after seven days, they have yet to respond to the request.) 

Junior Alexa Murphy, one of the co-founders of the Masters free speech club, feels that the Northwest High School administration infringed upon the rights of students to express their views freely. She maintained that the school didn’t have freedom of press to begin with, because as soon as students published LGBTQ+ editions of the paper, they stopped the publication as a whole. 

“This hints at a lot of greater problems, which are the implicit ways in which administration has prevented their students from speaking their views and challenging the status-quo,” Murphy said.

Note: Alexa Murphy is on Tower staff