Student Press Freedom

A Nebraska school district eliminated a decades-old student newspaper after students reported on LGBTQ+ topics – an act of censorship, press freedom advocates said.

In honor of Student Press Freedom Day, Kavitha Cardoza spoke to education journalist Jessica Votipka, who wrote about the experiences of Marcus Pennell and other student journalists. Marcus – now a first-year college student – discussed “deadnaming,” being outed, threats to student journalism and more. (EWA Radio Episode 313)

Photo credits: Zimmytws/Bigstock; Jessie J Photography; Allison Shelley (homepage)

Marcus Pennell and other high school student journalists in Nebraska decided to celebrate Pride Month last year, with some articles in their school newspaper. 

They wrote about the history of homophobia and origins of Pride Month among other content, including trapshooting athletes, a sophomore sculptor and adoption. Little did they know that shortly after, Northwest Public Schools’ administrators would shut down the Viking Saga, a 54-year-old, award-winning publication, because of “editorial content” concerns. Penell and fellow journalists felt gutted. 

When Jessica Votipka, an education reporter with The Grand Island Independent, heard about the news through an anonymous tip, she was shocked. To her, it seemed like a clear case of censorship. She spent weeks talking to students, teachers, lawyers, experts and freedom of speech advocates. Votipka wrote about the issue in a front-page article for her newspaper, bringing much-needed attention and scrutiny to the challenges student journalists face. 

In honor of Student Press Freedom Day, we spoke with Jessica and Marcus about their emotional experiences covering the topic, the bullying LGBTQ+ students face in schools and their mutual, unwavering belief in the importance of press freedom. Also, understand the challenges LGBTQ+ student journalists face using their preferred pronouns and names, and learn why freedom of speech advocates hear a lot from Nebraska. Plus, who decides what is considered “newsworthy?”

View the Transcript

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