Neshaminy principal meets with students after confiscating newspapers

PENNSYLVANIA — Neshaminy High School’s principal questioned all 21 editors at The Playwickian this week asking who made the decision to print a newspaper that didn’t pass his prior review.

The newspaper failed prior review earlier this month because the students refused to print the name of their school mascot, the Redskins, in a letter to the editor. The editorial board voted in October to stop printing the word, saying it’s a racial slur. The editors followed Associated Press style for slurs and replaced all but the first letter with dashes.

Principal Rob McGee told them to print the word in full or they couldn’t print the paper, Editor-in-Chief Gillian McGoldrick said. Editors offered to remove the entire letter instead, but McGee said they were required to print the letter.

The editors voted unanimously to print the paper without the letter and sent it to the printer without McGee’s permission, McGoldrick said. When they started handing out papers Friday, McGee and other administrators confiscated papers left in public spaces, such as on lockers and in offices. Students distributed papers without a hitch during Saturday’s graduation.

McGoldrick met with McGee twice this week, once briefly by herself and then in a 20-minute meeting which her father and her grade-level principal also attended. During these interviews, McGee asked her about the roles of editors in choosing to print and whether her adviser was involved in the decision, she said.

She said that it was a unanimous decision, but accepted responsibility that she was the one to send the paper to the printer. The paper’s adviser, Tara Huber, gave McGee a copy of the email McGoldrick signed, telling the printer to go ahead and print the PDF of the issue she attached, McGoldrick said.

McGee also talked to the other editors individually, sometimes pulling them out of final exams to do so, McGoldrick said. Sports editor Reed Hennessy said McGee stopped him in the hallway and had a list of editors that he was “cross-referencing to see if (their) answers were the same.”

McGoldrick and Hennessy both said Huber was not involved in the decision. They said she was supervising the students, but from a room where she couldn’t hear them.

In an interview, Huber said she was not a part of the decision-making process.

McGoldrick said she fears she may face disciplinary action for directly disobeying McGee’s orders.

“He’s going to wait until everybody calms down first,” McGoldrick said.

McGoldrick said she’s talked with the editors’ attorney, Gayle Sproul, about McGee’s questions and her concern that she may face punishment. Sproul, a lawyer with Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz LLP, is representing the students on a pro bono basis through the Student Press Law Center’s attorney referral network.

McGee didn’t respond to phone calls Thursday.

He hasn’t mentioned any specific disciplinary action so far, but gave Huber a directive to take away reporters’ access to The Playwickian’s Twitter, email, Instagram and website by changing the passwords, Huber said.

On Thursday, the newspaper’s account tweeted: “This evening our twitter will be deactivated due to an administration directive. We’d like to wish our followers a nice summer while we can.”

McGee hasn’t threatened to remove editors from the paper, McGoldrick said.

“That would be the biggest punishment, getting taken off the paper,” McGoldrick said. “I don’t care about getting suspended, but I care about getting kicked off the paper.”

Even before the final issue of the paper, the editors’ decision to not use the word has prompted backlash from administrators and the school board.

For several months, the school board has been considering a nine-page revision to the district’s publications policy, known as Policy 600 which, among other restrictions, would prohibit students from banning the use of the word “Redskin” in the newspaper, yearbook and literary magazine.

The district would also have copyright over each publication, require that advisers monitor and censor social media, and forbid district employees from communicating with students through social media, texting or private email accounts.

School and district administrators have met with The Playwickian’s editorial board and adviser to discuss their issues with the policy, but haven’t made many compromises, Huber has said. McGoldrick said a school board policy committee meeting is scheduled for Tuesday and she said she expects the policy will be approved and sent to the full board for its approval. She “highly doubts” there have been any changes to it in response to students’ concerns.

Superintendent Robert Copeland addressed the confiscation at a school board meeting Tuesday. He said the school didn’t want to censor the letter because it would infringe on the First Amendment rights of the student who wrote the letter. He also defended the principal’s confiscation of the newspapers.

“First, Dr. McGee’s initial collection of about 40 issues was made because he was uncertain as to what was printed since no prior approval was given,” Copeland said. “What some have called an overreaction I would call prudence. Secondly, while we applaud students who stand up for something we also expect a respect for school district authority and the rules that govern. This is especially true when so much time and patience was afforded by the Board and Administration to the process.”

Copeland said he was “impressed with the student editors, passion and maturity,” when he met with them to discuss the policy.

The students aren’t the only ones expressing disapproval of the word “Redskins” as a team mascot. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office cancelled the trademark of the Washington Redskins football team Wednesday, saying the word was a racial slur.

McGee brought this up when he met with McGoldrick and shook his head, she said. But it left her feeling optimistic.

“I hope that it puts more of a push for a name change on the school district,” she said. “I know that it shows the community that they can’t define the word for themselves.”

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