Neshaminy school board puts vote on publications policy on hold amid outcry

PENNSYLVANIA — The Neshaminy school board has pushed back a vote originally scheduled for Tuesday on a proposed publications policy that students and educators nationwide have condemned as unconstitutional and “educationally unsound.”

The nine-page policy was proposed last week and imposes a number of new restrictions on student publications at Neshaminy High: The Playwickian newspaper, the Redskin yearbook and The Howler literary magazine. The policy says editors may not “censor or prohibit use of” the word “Redskin” — a term the newspaper voted to ban from its pages last fall.

A committee approved the policy last week and the full board was scheduled to hear it this week. Monday afternoon, the meeting agenda was updated to show that the issue had been moved to May 21, The Bucks County Courier Times reported.

In addition to overturning the student newspaper editors’ ban on the word “Redskin,” the proposed policy allows school officials to censor anything that they “reasonably believe should be prohibited,” asserts district ownership of the copyright to each publication, and requires advisers monitor and censor social media posts that do not reflect “high standards that the School District desires.” The policy also forbids district employees from communicating with students through social media, texting or private email accounts.

The policy is contradictory at times. In one section, it states that the “viewpoints expressed by anyone in this paper shall not be deemed to be the viewpoints of the school district,” but in another, it declares that it is the board’s intent that district “publications be considered government speech for purposes of the First Amendment.”

“I can’t believe it — I don’t have words for it,” said Gillian McGoldrick, the Playwickian’s editor-in-chief. “They put restraints on everything.”

McGoldrick said she was particularly offended by the section of the policy regarding the use of the word “Redskins,” which states that it is “not to be construed as a racial or ethnic slur” and cannot be removed by editors or school employees “where the word is used in a positive manner.” McGoldrick was also bothered by a preceding section that declares “nothing herein shall be construed to violate the constitutional or legal rights of any person.”

“As one of our teachers said, it’s pretty much compelled thought,” she said. “You can’t even think that it’s unconstitutional.”

Since last fall, Playwickian editors and administrators in the district have been at odds over the question of editorial control. In a 14-7 vote in October, editors made the decision to stop using the word “Redskins,” the school’s mascot and nickname, when referring to Neshaminy students or teams. They wrote in an editorial they believed the word is racist and “a term of hate.”

The school’s principal responded to their editorial with an instruction to accept any articles or advertisements that contain the word. Editors and their parents met with the school’s principal, Rob McGee, in November, but the meeting was unproductive, McGoldrick said at the time.

After the meeting, McGee told editors the issue would be resolved by the school board. In December, the students’ volunteer attorney sent a letter to the district laying out their concerns, but there has been no further communication about the issue until last week. In the meantime, editors have been enforcing their ban, removing the word twice from sports stories, McGoldrick said. When the “Mr. Redskin” contest was held last month, the paper called it the “senior boys’ pageant,” she said.

“We told the school board we were going to do this,” McGoldrick said. “The students have no issue.”

After the proposed policy was shared last week, it was roundly criticized by the student editors, as well as educators nationwide. An attorney representing the students, Gayle Sproul, of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, sent a letter to the board on their behalf and said in an interview the policy was “overreaching.”

“We think it was meant to intimidate,” Sproul said. “It’s retaliatory. We believe it violates both state and federal law. We don’t like it.”

Educators with the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University, the Columbia Scholastic Press Advisers Association, the Journalism Education Association, the National Scholastic Press Association and the Quill and School International Honor Society shared a similar view in a joint statement distributed Friday.

“We find the proposed policy changes, which give school officials virtually unlimited authority to censor student journalism even of the highest quality, educationally unsound, constitutionally insufficient and morally indefensible,” the statement reads.

And in a letter Monday, Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte also denounced the proposal, calling it a “purposeful, premeditated attempt to inflict harm on children.”

Support for the Neshaminy editors has also come from student journalists elsewhere. The Foothill Dragon Press, a student newspaper in Ventura, California, wrote in an editorial that student freedom of speech is critical for democracy.

“A free press doesn’t begin in the professional world,” editors wrote. “It begins in high school, where the small flame of integrity within students is fanned to produce a mighty blaze of truth.”

Scott Congdon, the board’s president, could not be reached for comment. Mike Levin, an attorney who was hired by the district to advise on the Playwickian issue, defended the policy in an interview Monday. Levin said he was hired by the board to look at the district’s existing policies and make recommendations in light of the controversy over the use of “Redskins.”

The proposed policy is designed to update an outdated policy that didn’t establish the school board’s “authority and governance” in a number of areas, including the student publication’s website and social media accounts, he said. (The current policy was adopted in 1967, and was last reviewed in 2003.)

“If you read the policy, we are not claiming anything that we don’t have entitlement to,” Levin said, in reference to the section on copyright and intellectual property. “We are only making sure that the appropriate protection is given to the items that are entitled to protection in the name of the school district.”

For instance, articles written by the adviser and published in the student newspaper would belong to the district under “work for hire” doctrines. Levin declined to specify instances where a student’s writing would belong to the school district, saying “it depends.” Levin said it is clear to him that the publications qualify as government speech because they are produced in a class that is paid for and supervised by the district.

“It seems to be pretty clear government speech under those circumstances,” he said.

McGoldrick said she was encouraged by the fact that board members rescheduled the vote.

“I hope that they’re really just going to read all the letters that they’ve received and really take the time to decide before they approve this policy,” she said. “I’m happy that they’re not going to rush into it.”

McGoldrick said editors still plan to attend Tuesday’s meeting to share their concerns with the policy during the board’s public comment section.

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