Pennsylvania high school administrators told student newspaper it can't ban the word 'Redskins'

PENNSYLVANIA — Editors at Neshaminy High School’s student newspaper want to stop using the term “Redskins” — the school’s long-time nickname and mascot — but say administrators have told the paper’s adviser the staff is not allowed to make that call.

In The Playwickian’s October issue, the staff published an editorial explaining that they would no longer use the word itself or any derivative. The decision was the result of a 14-7 vote taken of the paper’s editorial board.

“The word ‘Redskin’ is racist, and very much so,” staff wrote in the editorial. “It is not a term of honor, but a term of hate.”

The editorial garnered a lot of media attention initially, but staff didn’t expect anything more to happen as a result of their decision, said Gillian McGoldrick, the Playwickian’s editor-in-chief.

Then, Rob McGee, the school’s principal, emailed the paper’s adviser with a “directive,” McGoldrick said. Adviser Tara Huber passed along the message to student editors because they are responsible for all editorial decisions, said Reed Hennessy, the paper’s sports editor.

“McGee said, ‘I don’t think you have the right to not use the word Redskins,’” Hennessy said, adding that the email said the paper had to continue to use the term at least until a hearing that McGee scheduled for Nov. 19 to discuss the issue.

In addition, the staff isn’t allowed to reject advertisements with the word, McGoldrick said.

Shortly after the initial email, a full-page advertisement was submitted that reads “Neshaminy Redskins, nearly a century of school and community, history pride and tradition, go Skins,” McGoldrick said. The advertisement, paid for by an alumnus of the class of 1972, was submitted to the staff by Tom Magdelinskas, the school’s vice principal of co-curriculars.

McGoldrick and Hennessy said administrators haven’t spoken to editors directly. Both said that Huber has asked for clarification about whether she must compel the students to use the term and to accept advertising using the term, but that she hasn’t gotten a clear answer.

“It’s really upsetting that our rights are being questioned and that we are being forced into this situation,” McGoldrick said. “We really didn’t do anything wrong except voice our opinions.”

Neither McGee nor Magdelinskas could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts. Calls to Superintendent Robert Copeland also went unreturned.

Huber declined to comment.

School board President Ritchie Webb said he was familiar with the paper’s editorial but disagrees with their conclusion that the term is offensive.

“Whenever we use the term ‘Redskin,’ it is only in a positive light,” Webb said.

Webb said he believes the Playwickian editors’ decision infringes on the free speech rights of students and advertisers who want to use the term.

“Bottom line is, if people take an editorial class, are we taking away their right to freedom of speech? Are you not allowed to use ‘Redskins’ even if you want to?” Webb asked.

McGoldrick said the paper has the right to make its own decisions.

“We have editorial control,” she said. “We can’t censor, we’re an editorial board. … We adopted this policy, and we should be able to use it.”

Both editors cited the Pennsylvania Administrative Code’s “freedom of expression” policy, which gives students the right to express themselves unless the speech “materially and substantially interferes with the educational process” or is libelous or obscene.

“It wasn’t disruptive to any educational process, it wasn’t violent,” Hennessy said. “It was just a pretty reasonable argument.”

Robert Hankes, president of the Pennsylvania School Press Association, said the students are correct as to the rights afforded them under the administrative code.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier said that schools could censor speech within a curricular activity that is “inconsistent with it’s ‘basic educational mission.’” But Pennsylvania’s administrative code effectively wipes out the effects of Hazelwood in the state and gives students essentially the same rights as those guaranteed under Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, where the court said that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

“The paper belongs to the students,” Hankes said. “They have the right to publish or not publish as they see fit.”

McGoldrick said that paper’s editors plan to fight to ensure they are allowed to enforce their policy. She called Hankes and representatives from the Journalism Education Association for advice, in addition to calling the Student Press Law Center’s legal hotline. She said editors are worried their adviser will face repercussions.

The debate at Neshaminy High mirrors one taking place on the national stage involving the NFL’s Washington Redskins. Several major media outlets, including the online journal Slate and the Washington City Paper, have announced that they will no longer refer to the pro football team by the name of its mascot, believing the term to be racially insensitive.

The Playwickian’s decision to stop using the word wasn’t made lightly, McGoldrick said. The newspaper has long advocated for changing the nickname, dating at least as far back as a 2001 editorial. But this year, the staff wanted to take a tougher stand, she said.

“It was a debate,” McGoldrick said. “We for sure went at it. People swung from one side of the spectrum to another.”

The decision to stop using the term “Redskin” wasn’t unanimous, and the paper also published a “dissenting” editorial that was penned by one of the seven editors who disagreed. But even editors who voted to continue using the name are upset by how administrators have responded, McGoldrick said.

“Their rights are also being infringed upon, so they’re upset too,” McGoldrick said. “It’s unanimous that this is over the top.”

McGoldrick said she hopes the issue is put to rest after the Nov. 19 meeting.

“We just want our rights,” she said. “We just want to be able to say what’s in our paper and what’s not.”

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