PENNSYLVANIA — The Neshaminy school board will vote Thursday on whether to change the publication policies of The Playwickian, the student newspaper at the high school.
Four members of the school board met Tuesday and approved new publication and social media policies to be voted on at this week’s regular board meeting. The proposed policies are the latest response to an ongoing debate between editors and administrators over the students’ ban on the word “Redskins.”
Editors at The Playwickian voted back in October to stop using the word, which is the school’s mascot and nickname, in the student newspaper. The editorial staff believes that “Redskins” is “a term of hate” and published an editorial in the paper about their decision last fall. Principal Rob McGee told the editors then that they couldn’t ban the word and instructed them to accept any articles or advertisements containing the controversial word.
The school board proposed policy revisions in April in response to student editors’ protest of McGee’s order. The original policy was denounced by Playwickian editors and national journalism groups as unconstitutional and “educationally unsound,” and the board’s policy committee has continued to discuss the proposal since.
The version approved by the committee Tuesday is the result of several discussions between administrators, Playwickian editors and attorneys from Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, who are representing the editors pro bono through the Student Press Law Center’s attorney referral network.
The proposed publications policy “distinguishes between news stories on the one hand and editorials on the other.” Under the proposal, student editors would have the authority to ban a word like “Redskins” in the news pages but not the editorial pages. On the opinion pages, student newspaper editors would not be allowed to prohibit letters to the editor “solely because of the word, phrase or viewpoint expressed.”
The policy also states that student editors cannot be disciplined by the school for refusing to say the word “Redskin.” However, the editors would have to discuss this decision with the principal, “who shall have final authority in determining what material may be used.”
Gillian McGoldrick, The Playwickian’s co-editor-in-chief, said she and other editors are still not satisfied with the proposed changes and thinks the board is underestimating editors’ professionalism.
“We are much more professional than they make us out to be,” she said.
McGoldrick took issues with several parts of the policies, particularly the new prior review requirement in which the editors would have to submit the paper for review to the principal 10 days in advance, instead of the current three days.
“This isn’t preparing us to be journalists if it’s under 10 days of prior review,” McGoldrick said.
At the meeting, Mike Levin, an attorney who is advising the district on the publications policy issue, emphasized the educational nature of the publication.
“This is a curricular-related school district educational related exercise, it’s not a newspaper like The Philadelphia Inquirer,” Levin said in a video published by The Bucks County Courier Times.
Robert Hankes, president of the Pennsylvania School Press Association, said that the proposed policy changes violate Pennsylvania Administrative Code, which has a policy regarding students’ freedom of expression in public high schools. The code says administrators can censor student expression only in very specific circumstances — for instance, if the speech is libelous, obscene or “materially and substantially interferes with the educational process.”
The state code does not distinguish between news and opinion content, the way the proposed publications policy does.
Under the proposed policy, “The principal becomes the final arbiter having to do with language in articles or letters. The decision to print or not to print is taken out of the hands of the students,” Hankes said. “Pennsylvania just doesn’t roll that way.”
Hankes didn’t attend the meeting but has looked over the proposed policies and said he found numerous other issues with the way they are written. He will attend Thursday’s board meeting.
Levin said that the school board doesn’t believe the proposal violates the code. He cited a section of the Pennsylvania code that says “Students who are not members of the newspaper staff shall have access to its pages.”
“Under the state board regulations, students have the right to have access to the pages,” Levin said. “It seems to me that other students infringing on their right would be a violation of the rights that they have.”
Susan Houseman, PSPA’s vice president and the Journalism Education Association’s state director for Pennsylvania, attended the committee meeting. She said that certain language changes in the policy, especially in the rules of construction, are most likely “trying to head off the students declaring themselves a public forum.”
The committee also approved a new proposed social media policy that will go before the full board Thursday as well. Rules for social media were originally introduced along with the publication policy revisions, which McGoldrick said did not make sense given the context.
The proposed policy prohibits communication on private email and texting accounts between students and school employees without the knowledge of the principal. The social media policy also holds the adviser responsible for policing content on social media accounts maintained by student groups, requiring each day that the adviser remove any posts that are, among other things, “poorly written” or “inadequately researched.”
Levin said that the board made minor revisions after Tuesday’s meeting. He said that the committee does not intend to make major changes before the full board meeting.
McGoldrick said she and other editors plan to continue to fight the proposed policies.
“I’m getting together with my co-editor-in-chief and managing editor tonight to plan out exactly what we’re going to say because we still want to stop this policy from being passed,” McGoldrick said. “If it’s passed, then we’re still going to keep fighting it after it.”
“I’m just still hopeful that they just don’t pass this,” she said.
Contact Spoont by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.