Neshaminy administrators confiscate newspapers printed by student editors without principal's approval

PENNSYLVANIA — Neshaminy High School administrators confiscated the student newspaper’s final issue of the year Friday, after students printed the paper without administrative approval following renewed disagreement over the students’ ban on the word “Redskins.”

Editor-in-Chief Gillian McGoldrick said the staff started to distribute copies of The Playwickian this morning as usual but quickly noticed that papers were disappearing from where editors left them – on top of lockers and in various offices and classrooms throughout the school.

Sports Editor Reed Hennessy said he saw Principal Robert McGee taking newspapers off lockers in the hallway and also saw Assistant Principal Thomas Magdelinskas walk out of a classroom with more. McGoldrick said secretaries told her that McGee took copies of the paper that were in the school’s office.

McGee, Magdelinskas and Superintendent Robert Copeland didn’t respond to repeated phone calls and emails.

Editors submitted the paper for prior review last Thursday. In the issue was a letter to the editor submitted by a student who argued that the newspaper’s refusal to print the word “Redskin” — editors decided in October to stop using the word because they think it’s a racial slur — is a violation of other students’ First Amendment rights. Following Associated Press style, editors changed the word to “R——-.” The AP Stylebook says if offensive language must be used, it should be replaced with hyphens, keeping only the initial letter.

McGee told the students Monday they had to spell the word out, which editors did not want to do, McGoldrick said. When the editors suggested removing the letter to the editor entirely instead of using hyphens, McGee told them they must print the letter in its entirety, she said. On Tuesday, they removed the letter and sent it to the printer, without telling McGee.

In its place was an editor’s note surrounded mostly by white space. It reads: “A letter to the editor regarding use of the mascot’s name was sent to us. The editors wished to publish the letter with the word as “R——,” but the school administration advised us that we must publish the entire word. In light of that we have decided not to publish the letter in this edition of The Playwickian. This white space represents our resolve to maintain our rights as editors and our determination to eliminate discrimination.”

Gayle Sproul, the students’ attorney, said that confiscating the newspapers was a violation of the students’ rights.

“My view is they had a right to do what they wanted to do initially and they certainly had a right to do this,” she said. “The confiscation of the entire newspaper was an inappropriate response to the publication.”

Sproul is representing the students pro bono through the Student Press Law Center’s attorney referral network.

Pennsylvania School Press Association President Robert Hankes said he was disappointed by the confiscation.

“It’s a student newspaper, and if the students can’t get access to it that’s a shame,” he said.

Of the 750 papers distributed to students Friday, McGoldrick estimates that roughly half were confiscated. They printed 5,000 papers total, most of which they plan to continue to hand out at graduation.

McGoldrick said she hasn’t spoken with McGee about the confiscation. She and other editors asked McGee if they’re allowed to distribute papers at graduation Saturday and she said he told them he wasn’t sure.

Hennessy said they’re planning on trying.

“We’re just gonna do our thing until someone stops us,” he said. “We’re going to show up tomorrow and try to distribute.”

The students are also fighting against revisions to the district’s publications policy that were proposed in April. The draft proposal, which has been revised several times in the past two months, would impose further restrictions on the students. As part of the nine-page policy, editors at The Playwickian, the Redskin yearbook and The Howler literary magazine may not “censor or prohibit use of” the word “Redskin.”

The editors of The Playwickian and their adviser, Tara Huber, met with McGee, Copeland and his assistant Monday to discuss objections to the policy. Huber said that at the meeting students mainly clarified some language, but there were no compromises from administrators.

Contact Kass by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.