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Ms. Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.
NASHVILLE — It wasn’t exactly news when a principal in Nebraska censored a high school newspaper, canceled the school’s journalism program and abruptly disbanded its student newspaper. I mean, it’s news news, but it’s not surprising news. Red state bureaucrats and politicians have been at war with the First Amendment for a while now.
Even school officials’ reason for shutting down The Viking Saga, the award-winning 54-year-old student paper at Northwest High School in Grand Island, Neb., wasn’t exactly a shock. When the school principal announced a new edict requiring student journalists, including at least three transgender staff members, to use bylines that match their legal names, the Saga staff members responded in its June issue with two opinion pieces on L.G.B.T.Q. issues and an article explaining the history of homophobia and the origins of Pride Month.
These weren’t the only three stories in the paper, of course. There were also articles on the state leadership conference of the Future Business Leaders of America, class registration for fall, a group of sibling students newly adopted out of the foster care system, the usual school sports and a true-crime mini-series, among other topics. The Viking Saga is exactly what a student newspaper should be, the very paradigm of a high school newspaper, offering something for every kind of reader and a multifaceted picture of what life can be like for students at Northwest High School.
The June issue was the paper’s last. Three days after its publication, the school notified staff members that The Viking Saga was being disbanded.
Newspapers at public high schools are not protected by the First Amendment in the same way that professional newspapers are. In 1988 the Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that a high school newspaper produced as part of a school curriculum could be censored by school officials for educational reasons. “Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns,” reads an explanation of the case on the website of the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University.
Administrators at Northwest High School have offered no explanation for their decision to disband the student newspaper and remove journalism from its curriculum, nor have they provided a legitimate pedagogical reason for the administration’s action. Their real motivation is clear anyway.
“I do think there have been talks of doing away with our news if we were not going to be able to control content that we saw (as) inappropriate,” the vice president of the school board told Jessica Votipka, the journalist who broke the story in an article for The Grand Island Independent. “There were editorials that were essentially, I guess what I would say, L.G.B.T.Q.”
Again: no surprise. There appears to be no limit to the willingness of red-state officials to politicize simple human decency toward L.G.B.T.Q. students. Decline to use the names and pronouns they wish to be called by? Check. Refuse to allow them to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender? Check. Prevent them from competing in school sports? Check. Force schools to out transgender students to their parents? Check, check, check.
As Eduardo Medina pointed out in an article for The Times, the travesty at Northwest High School is only the latest episode in the increasing efforts to censor student publications across the red states, particularly when students are writing about L.G.B.T.Q. issues.
Even if you accept the argument that parents, not schools, ought to decide when and how children should learn about gender issues, shutting down a high school newspaper in which the writing and editing are done by the students makes no sense. Critical thinking and clear communication are two of the chief skills that secondary schools are charged with teaching, and the school newspaper is a crucial tool for cultivating both.
Student journalists practice formulating arguments and expressing them in written language. They are obliged to recognize that different people hold different opinions, and they practice listening closely, word for word, to what other people say. They learn how essential it is for every word they write to be true. And they do it all in a real-world context that no ordinary class assignment can approximate.
Working on my high school newspaper was the single greatest formative experience of my writing life — never mind that I have a graduate degree in writing. Like most high school students, I wasn’t a great writer, and some of the opinions I held then are opinions I repudiate now. But writing for my school paper taught me the power of words. It taught me to respect them and to be careful with them. I came to recognize their power in part because the adults in charge of my school so often feared them.
The first time I got in trouble as a student journalist, it was for writing a poll designed to discover how many teens in my high school were sexually active and in what ways. A poll of the student body was a regular feature of the paper; each month English teachers distributed the printed check-the-box questions, and each month I collected the answer sheets and tabulated the results. But that month the principal confiscated the poll from the school copy machine and refused to release it.
I still don’t know what that poll might have revealed, and neither does anyone else. But the adults at my Bible Belt school clearly expected it to be something they didn’t want to know about teen sexuality in 1977.
Too many adults still don’t want to know what high school students really think about the world they live in. Too many high school students have good reason not to want the adults in their lives to know those things, either. Agreed-upon fictions can benefit both sides of a generational divide.
What adults know about teenagers is only what teenagers choose to divulge. Parents may believe their children aren’t having unprotected sex, aren’t drinking or experimenting with drugs, aren’t struggling with thoughts of self-harm, aren’t driving too fast with eight other kids piled in the car, aren’t cheating on tests, aren’t bullying somebody online and aren’t being bullied — aren’t, in short, engaging in any number of teen behaviors that would dismay or frighten any parent — but they have no way of knowing for sure. Teenagers have always been able to make themselves inscrutable.
It’s a time-honored tradition for parents to be terrified of the changing world their children will one day lead, but student journalists are not the ones who created that world. Student journalists are only reporting on it. Faithfully and fearlessly, they are showing us what they observe and what they experience. They are telling us what they think it all means.
The high school newspaper is not the enemy of frightened adults. It is one of the few windows they will ever have into what is actually happening in their own children’s world, perhaps in their own children’s hearts. Isn’t that what a parent is supposed to want?
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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