Neshaminy H.S. newspaper staff says principal violating 1st Amendment rights over ‘Redskins’ ban

    A mural of the Neshaminy High School mascot. (Eugene Sonn/WHYY)

    A mural of the Neshaminy High School mascot. (Eugene Sonn/WHYY)

    Student editors at the Neshaminy Playwickian in Bucks County say school leadership is now violating their constitutional right to free speech by ordering the paper publish the full name of the school’s mascot: Redskins.

    Since 2013, school administrators and the student newspaper disagreed about whether the paper can refuse to publish the name. That year, Neshaminy parent Brenda Boyle filed a complaint about the name with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). As a result, newspaper editors adopted a policy banning the word.

    At issue is a story about a talent competition called the “Mr. Redskin” contest, which took place on March 31st.

    Neshaminy School District spokesman Chris Stanley said the author of the article in the newspaper asked to have the full name kept in the published version of the article, and that’s the version the administration approved.

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    “The principal and the advisor have to approve every article” as a matter of policy, he said. “Especially with the Redskins issue.”

    Following skirmishes over mascot which garnered national attention in 2014, the school enacted a policy new permitting the word under certain circumstances last year, according to Stanley, granting the principal “final authority” over stories. This is the first time that policy has been tested.

    Newspaper staff, however, published a version of the story with the mascot’s name redacted, as per their policy. School leaders swiftly took down the online post and revoked student privileges to publish to the Playwickian’s website.

    Stanley chalked up the removal, and a brief period Tuesday evening when the newspaper’s site was down, as necessary for correcting a breach of school policy.

    However, two days later editor-in-chief Tim Cho said the school’s principal, Robert McGee, presented the newspaper staff with a choice.

    “Either I can publish the article and not edit the word and regain all of the access [to the publish on the website] I previously had, or refuse to publish the article…and have the administrator publish the article with the word unedited,” he said. “Either way, the article is going to be published with the word unedited.”

    School administrations, in general, have the power to censor a story but they can’t compel students to say — or write — something they don’t want to, said Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate with the Student Press Law Center.

    “The [Neshaminy] administration wants to force this word into the student editor’s mouth, which is astonishing and clearly unconstitutional,” he said.

    That opens the door for a lawsuit in federal court, he said, asserting the newspaper staff’s right to free speech. Cho said he’s looking into legal action.

    “I’ve been through this entire controversy from the beginning and this is not something I’m just going to let fade away,” said Cho, who has been on the Playwickian staff for four years. “I didn’t sign up to give up.”

    School policy forbids punishing students for edits related to the word “Redskins.”

    In its initial decision, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ruled that the school’s use of the Redskins’ name was “derogatory” and asked the administration to change it. Stanley said he could not speak to the PHRC complaint and mascot remains in use.

    And, in case you were wondering, the name of the newspaper comes from settlement of the Leni-Lenape called Playwicki, which translates to “lots of turkeys.”

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