Pennsylvania editors, administrators still at odds over student newspaper's Redskins ban

PENNSYLVANIA — Neshaminy High School student editors and administrators remain in disagreement over the newspaper’s ban on the word “Redskins.”

The Playwickian editors voted to stop using the school mascot’s name last month, writing that the word was racist and “a term of hate.” Editors say that after publishing the editorial, Principal Rob McGee told their adviser the paper must accept any advertisements or staff articles submitted with the word, pending the outcome of a meeting with him.

When editors and their parents arrived at the meeting Thursday night, McGee had a PowerPoint presentation queued up and gave them each a 53-page packet, said Gillian McGoldrick, the paper’s editor-in-chief. The packet included the school district’s policy on student publications, as well as articles written about the controversy and an email between McGee and Tara Huber, the paper’s adviser.

“It was a two-and-a-half hour meeting, and we did not get anything done,” McGoldrick said. “For now, we’re sort of stuck in a standstill.”

Maddy Buffardi, the paper’s managing editor and student life editor, said both McGee and the students’ presentations cited many of the same laws, just interpreted differently. Students argued primarily that the Pennsylvania Code’s policy on student expression gives them the same authority as “editors of other newspapers to report the news and to editorialize.”

McGee told the students he was advocating for students in the school who may want to use the word “Redskins” over the editors’ objections, either in articles, columns or letters to the editor, Buffardi said.

Buffardi said the editors’ ban on the word isn’t any different from the editing they do of all content that runs in the paper.

“We edit articles that staff writers give us,” she said. “[Sometimes] we have to change the wording of sentences and take words out. If he’s considering taking the word ‘Redskin’ out to be censoring, then the way that we edit articles is also censoring. Because that’s our job, that’s what we have to do.”

Editors said McGee told them at the start of the meeting that the purpose was to see if they could persuade him.

“At the end, my mom asked, ‘Did they make their case?’ and he said no,” said Reed Hennessy, the paper’s sports editor. “Ms. Huber asked if the hold was still in effect, and he said yes.”

“He told us that the decision was ultimately out of his hands and that it was up to the school board,” Buffardi said. “He said he wanted to go to the school board and plead his side as well as our side.”

Buffardi said the editors would rather defend their position themselves and plan to attend the board’s next meeting, which is Dec. 2. McGoldrick said editors have spoken with attorneys who have agreed to represent the students pro-bono if they decide to litigate the case.

McGee did not return calls for comment. Reached by phone last week, McGee said he couldn’t talk and hung up.

After McGee told editors they could not enforce their ban on “Redskins,” an anonymous alumnus submitted an advertisement using the word. Because the issue went to press before the scheduled meeting with administrators to discuss the issue, editors decided to publish the ad as a “goodwill” gesture, McGoldrick said. At the same time, editors decided to write an editorial explaining why the school’s policy infringed on their rights.

They also accepted a full-page advertisement submitted by the Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission, the Pennsylvania School Press Association and the Student Press Law Center.

The ad submitted by the three groups reprints the Pennsylvania Administrative Code’s policy on student free expression and says “go press freedom,” said Jane Blystone, a member of the press rights commission who is also JEA’s Region 7 Director, which includes Pennsylvania.

Ultimately, the alumnus withdrew the “Go Skins” advertisement, but the edition, which went to press Nov. 18, included the editorial, the journalism organizations’ advertisement and an editorial cartoon that is a caricature of McGee wearing a feathered Native American headdress and a sweatshirt that says “Redskins.” The speech bubble says “You can have freedom of the press… As long as you say what I want you to say.”

“[McGee] said ‘thanks for the potbelly’” given to him in the cartoon, but otherwise let the issue go to press as usual, which was something editors were concerned about, McGoldrick said.

“He really did work with us,” she said.

Though the hold is still in effect, McGoldrick said there was one bright spot to Thursday’s meeting: McGee agreed to address the harassment editors have faced from other students at the school, a concern some of the parents raised. McGoldrick said students have been personally attacking editors over social media, and that numerous copies of the paper’s last issue were ripped up.

“Somebody screamed ‘burn The Playwickian’ at us,” she said.

McGee plans to make an announcement Monday concerning the harassment, which Buffardi said she hopes will improve the situation.

“It’s scary going into school, feeling like you’re going to war with not only your students, your teachers and your administration,” she said. “It’d be nice if he could say ‘listen, I don’t agree with these 21 editors, but they’re not doing anything wrong. … It’s not about the word Redskins, it’s about First Amendment rights.'”

Contact Gregory by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 125.