Editor’s note: This is an opinion column by Tom Eveslage.
Imagine, a resident of your community complaining to the city council that her free-speech rights were violated when the local newspaper edited her letter to the editor. If that’s not preposterous enough, how likely is it that the council would pass an ordinance forbidding the newspaper from editing any further letters without first getting permission from the city council?
These are just fairy tales, at least when the professional media are involved. But student journalists at Neshaminy High School in suburban Philadelphia are fighting just such an unprecedented battle. And unless “government” officials in that public school come to their senses soon, a judge will be asked to intercede.
You might think this battle of wills is about a student editor’s fight to publish a story embarrassing to the school. You’d be wrong. It concerns a sports mascot, one shared by football teams in Washington, D.C., and Langhorne, Pa. Both teams bear the controversial moniker of “Redskins.” Some Washington sports fans (and reporters) find the term offensive, but journalists there still use the name of the NFL team.
But not so at Neshaminy High School. Last October, the editorial board of the Playwickian voted 14-7 to no longer use “Redskin” in the newspaper when referring to the school’s students or sports teams. Acknowledging that most community members and students want to keep the nickname, the editors said they found the word Redskin “offensive” and “racist.” They told their readers, “The change is not being encouraged for the sake of political correctness itself, but for the sake of being respectful and fair to an entire race.” The student journalists did not call for a change in the school’s mascot, nor did they refuse to report on their sports teams. They just believed it was right to stop publishing that word.
Rather than permit a conversation or debate on this decision, school administrators chose to flex their muscles. They said that the newspaper could not remove the word “Redskin” from any article or ad submitted to the newspaper. Their reasoning was that such editing would infringe on the rights of other students who might want to use that word in a story or ad.
Despite an outcry from student-speech advocates nationwide, plus news stories and editorials criticizing the school district’s “compelled speech” policy, administrators said they would follow this policy pending action by the board of school directors.
Little changed between November and April 29, when the district released a nine-page document recommended unanimously by the board’s four-member policy committee. The new policy detailed rigid regulations for the student newspaper, yearbook, literary magazine, electronic publications and social media. The final policy item stated that “the term ‘Redskins’ when referring to the School District mascot” is not a racial or ethnic slur, and no student, school official or employee can prohibit the published use of the term.
Neshaminy’s proposed board policy set off an immediate firestorm of anger and disbelief. Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, called the proposal “not so much a ‘policy’ as … a public tantrum. It is a purposeful, premeditated attempt to inflict harm on children.” He called it “legally and educationally unsound” and in defiance of the Pennsylvania Public School Code protecting student expression.
Within days, five national journalism education organizations issued a joint statement of “vigorous opposition” to the proposed policy. Echoing LoMonte’s criticisms, the national educators found offensive the policymakers’ professed willingness to let the newspaper staff “determine the content,” only to add the caveat that school officials could censor any material they “reasonably believe should be prohibited.”
The policy’s language is chilling enough to freeze the blood of anyone who believes schools should educate the young to be active citizens. The Neshaminy document screams of “control” and “power” that belongs to administrators and school board members as “government officials.” It offers no specific guidelines for how students can express themselves, but instead 17 ways they can’t via social media and 19 prohibitions via written expression. The board’s proposed policy inexplicably equates editing with censoring, gives administrators the authority to “edit” all student copy, and prevents students from “censoring” students who want to use the word “Redskins” in the newspaper.
It’s not surprising that many of the district’s sports fans and community members see no harm in the word sparking this controversy. When the Bucks County Courier Times, the community’s local daily, reported that the students have legal counsel and are ready to fight in court for their speech rights, readers who posted comments were divided in support of students or school officials.
Ironically, that newspaper and its sister papers, the Intelligencer and Burlington County Times, forbid use of “Redskins” in their papers, online or in video reports. The editorial boards of those papers approved the ban soon after Neshaminy’s student newspaper decided not to print the “R” word.
What’s next? The board of school directors was to discuss the proposed policy at its May 6 work session. The deluge of feedback in days following release of the proposed policy led the Board to move the policy item to the agenda of the Board’s May 21 meeting, shortly before the school year ends.
Thomas E. Eveslage is an emeritus professor of journalism who taught media law and ethics at Temple University. For almost 20 years, he was on the Student Press Law Center’s board of directors and the Pennsylvania School Press Association’s executive board. He has advised high school and university newspapers and serves on the Quill & Scroll Foundation’s board of directors.