Can students ban a word from the school newspaper?
Sept. 3, 2014
By Lauren Hawkins, Student Voices staff writer
For every fearsome school mascot like the Tigers or the Spartans, there is a school with a slightly less traditional mascot, like the New Braunfels Unicorns or the Tillamook Cheesemakers. As much as students in New Braunfels or Tillamook might like to change their mascots to inspire a little less laughter and a little more fear, there usually isn’t much they can do. In fact, you might eventually get used to being a Cheesemaker, but what would you do if your school’s mascot was offensive to you or to people in your community?
Student editors at Neshaminy High School in Pennsylvania confronted that situation when they resolved to ban use of their mascot name, the Redskins, from the school newspaper last year. The students acted after parent Donna Fann-Boyle, who is part Choctaw and part Cherokee, asked school directors to change the mascot.
On a national level, a number of First Nation tribes and advocacy groups have long protested the NFL’s Washington Redskins’ name because of its history of use as a slur against Native Americans. In June, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Washington Redskins’ trademark registration, saying the team’s name and logo are disparaging. (The actual origin of the word “redskin” is still a contentious issue, but many people nevertheless find the word derogatory.) However, some argue that using the word for team names is meant to honor the nation’s earliest inhabitants.
In October 2013, 14 members of the editorial board of the Neshaminy student newspaper, the Playwickian, voted to print the name only as “R_______,” as pejoratives are often written in professional publications. The students’ actions prompted resistance from school authorities, who expressed concern that the ban might infringe on other students’ right to free speech. Principal Robert McGee told USA Today, “I see it as a First Amendment issue running into another First Amendment issue.” The school board eventually decided to change the editorial policy to protect use of the word in editorials submitted by contributors and letters to the editor, but to permit the ban in the rest of the newspaper. The new policy also set guidelines for approval of issues of the paper, including a provision allowing school administrators to edit the paper for any “reasonable reason.”
“Regardless of what you think about the word ‘Redskin,’ and regardless of what you think about the policy, this policy is taking an entire education opportunity away from students,” Playwickian sports editor Reed Hennessy told NPR. “It’s saying, you can’t have this discussion, you can’t do this research because it ultimately does not matter what you think. It’s like telling us that we can’t discuss our thoughts on everything from gun rights to perhaps a piece of legislation that's come up even locally.”
The school district’s attorney, Michael Levin, argues that the school newspaper is a curriculum-related activity. “The school district controls the curriculum, and the school controls how the curriculum is implemented,” he said. “It’s a school district newspaper; it’s not the kids’ newspaper.”
The editors of the Playwickian have said that they plan to fight the school board’s decision.
The Constitutional Issue
Usually in student press freedom cases, school officials are trying to remove content from student publications, not trying to force a student newspaper to use a word.
Two landmark Supreme Court cases on student First Amendment rights arise in the Neshaminy debate. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the court said in 1967 that students “don’t shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech” at school as long as the speech doesn’t disrupt the school. But later, in the 1988 case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the court limited those rights regarding student newspapers, saying a principal was allowed to exercise editorial control over the school newspaper when the speech is inconsistent with the school’s educational mission.
What do you think?
Should the students or the school administration control the content of the newspaper? Is the ban an infringement on the free speech right of contributors to the newspaper? Does the school board have the right to limit the ban to certain newspaper content? Join the discussion!
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