At Neshaminy High, a war of words over a word

Posted: November 18, 2013

In this month's issue, to be released Wednesday, Neshaminy High School's student newspaper will publish a full-page advertisement simply stating a section of Pennsylvania's school code.

Known as the "freedom of expression" clause, it begins: "The right of public school students to freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution of the United states and the Constitution of the Commonwealth . . ."

The ad is a swift rebuke to the school's principal, who recently asked the paper to lift its three-week ban of the word Redskins, the long-held name of the school's sports teams. The principal has asked the students - and their parents - to meet with school officials this week to discuss the ban.

The Bucks County school district has become the latest stage in an escalating national debate over naming sports teams with terms that Native Americans find offensive.

Late last month, the paper published an unsigned editorial banishing the word, a decision made in part because "the evidence suggesting that Redskin is a term of honor is severely outweighed by the evidence suggesting that it is a term of hate."

The paper had briefly adopted a similar policy in 2001.

This time, though, the sentiment is shared by national figures - including President Obama and several national publications - who have urged the National Football League's Washington Redskins to consider renaming themselves.

But Robert McGee, the principal, said the paper's editorial board could end up censoring students who take journalism courses and want to get published in the Playwickian, a monthly published since the 1930s.

He also takes issue with the editors' attempt to ban the word from advertisements in the paper.

The Playwickian's editors, including those who disagreed with the policy, said they would not budge. And legal experts say state and federal laws are on the students' side.

"From a public relations point of view the school is making a terrible mistake," said Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and a former editor of USA Today.

"It's remarkable that they're managing to paint themselves as racially insensitive and repressive of student freedoms at the same time," Paulson added. "What they should do is sit down with the students and air their respective concerns and then let the students do their jobs as student editors."

McGee said the point of the meeting is to share perspectives and find some common ground.

"We can't limit what the students write," he said. "But how can one group of students limit what another group of students write? It becomes First Amendment versus First Amendment."

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Student Press Law Center, said undermining the editors' decisions would lead to "chaos." Besides, he said, state and federal laws protect speech from the meddling of government officials, not editors.

"A 16-year-old can't violate your constitutional rights," he said. "That's called editing."

Eishna Ranganathan, the Playwickian's news editor, was among the minority of the editorial board's 21 students who voted against the ban. Her dissenting editorial, written last month, said the word could be redefined through school pride.

"I'm still for using the word, but I think we should have editorial control," the sophomore said. "What if it was another issue, and they were forcing us to use a certain word?"

Gillian McGoldrick, the paper's editor in chief, said the editors recently wanted to spike a full-page ad celebrating the Redskins name.

The ad read: "Neshaminy Redskins. Nearly a century of school and community . . . history . . . pride . . . and tradition. Go Skins."

But the students decided to comply with the principal's directive to publish it, partly because it allowed the paper to write another editorial decrying the word.

In the end, the person who bought the ad, a 1972 Neshaminy alum, decided to pull it because of the controversy, but not before the Student Press Law Center, the Journalism Education Association, and the Pennsylvania School Press Association bought another ad. That ad, which states the freedom-of-expression clause in Pennsylvania's code, will still appear.

"The students are doing exactly what we claim we want students to do, which is engage on issues of public concern," said LoMonte, of the Student Press Law Center. "But when they actually start doing that, they often get slapped down."


bfinley@phillynews.com

610-313-8118

@Ben_Finley

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