Neshaminy school board passes new policies limiting student publications and school-related social media rights

PENNSYLVANIA — Student editors say they will continue to challenge publication and social media policies approved Thursday by the Neshaminy School Board.

The Playwickian’s co-editor-in-chief Gillian McGoldrick said the approved policies, which limit students’ authority to make decisions, will hinder their ability to report the news. The full board voted 8-1 in favor of the policies without discussion.

“We’re definitely going to pursue it, it’s just a matter of how,” McGoldrick said. “We need to decide what our next step is going to be. We’re not just going to let this happen, we’re going to keep fighting it.”

Editors’ October decision to stop using the word “Redskins,” the school’s mascot and nickname, and Principal Rob McGee’s subsequent order to continue allowing the word prompted the board to look at the district’s publications policy.

The policy has been under revision for several months, and has been criticized by Playwickian editors and national journalism organizations. These groups argued that the policy was “educationally unsound” and violated the students’ First Amendment rights. The president of the Pennsylvania School Press Association has said the policies violate the state’s education code, as well.

The new publications policy indicates that student editors are free to remove the word “Redskins” in every section — subject to an appeal to the principal, who has the final say — except the opinions pieces, including letters to the editor. The policy states that it is the adviser’s job “to select and to edit” letters to the editor and that editorials “cannot be prohibited solely because of the word, phrase or viewpoint expressed.”

School district attorney Mike Levin said earlier this week that students who are not members of the paper “have the right to have access to the pages.”

Under the policy, student editors cannot be disciplined for refusing to use the word “Redskin,” but the principal must approve of the decision before publishing. The policy also states that the editors must submit their paper to the principal 10 days in advance for prior review, instead of the former three-day requirement.

McGoldrick said the 10-day prior review change concerns her because the articles are “going to be month-old news” by the time they get published.

“It’s just going to be impractical to call ourselves a newspaper anymore,” McGoldrick said.

The new social media policy prohibits school employees and students from communicating through private email and texting accounts without the principal’s knowledge. Employees advising student groups will be held responsible for the content of social media accounts, and they are required to remove any posts that are “poorly written” or “inadequately researched,” among other reasons.

As they have at many recent board meetings, editors from the paper spoke during the public comment period to try to convince members not to pass the policies.

Board member Mike Morris was the only one who opposed approving the new policies. Morris did not respond to calls or emails, but McGoldrick said that he has told to her previously that “he didn’t understand enough and that the board didn’t understand enough how much this policy is restraining.”

Managing editor Jack Haines said he is concerned with the vague wording of the policy, particularly as it applies to school officials’ authority under the policy. It says that administrators can censor any content if they have “any reasonable reason the material should be prohibited from publication.”

“That’s extremely vague,” Haines said.

This requirement likely violates the state’s education code, said Robert Hankes, Pennsylvania School Press Association president. Pennsylvania’s Administrative Code states that school administrators can censor the school newspaper only in certain circumstances — such as if the speech is libelous, obscene or “materially and substantially interferes with the educational process.”

McGoldrick had asked the board about the “reasonable reason” clause at a committee meeting on Tuesday, but Levin and the board did not elaborate, she said.

Hankes, who attended the meeting, said that the board seemed to be attentive during the public comment period. But he didn’t understand the board’s motivation.

“Throughout [the meeting], more than one board member said they want Neshaminy School District to be the best that it can possibly be,” Hankes said. “That really caused me to wonder, how can you handicap the publication staff and expect to end up with the best possible journalism program in the state? It just seems inconceivable.”

The students’ attorney, Matt Schafer, attended Thursday night’s meeting. The Playwickian editors are being represented pro bono by attorneys from Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz through the Student Press Law Center’s attorney referral network.

Contact Spoont by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.