Listen to your Top 10 Rock 'n' Vote 2015 finalists here

Can a high school paper nix the name 'Redskins'?

A long time ago, I was an editor on my high school paper and something of a troublemaker. So I have some sympathy for the editors of the student newspaper at Neshaminy High School in eastern Pennsylvania. On Tuesday, the editors will meet with the school principal to address a controversy over the paper’s decision to refrain from printing the name of the school’s sports teams, which happens to be the same as Washington’s NFL team: the Redskins.

An editorial announcing the change said the team name was “not a term of honor but a term of hate.” It added: “Detractors will argue that the word is used with all due respect. But the offensiveness of a word cannot be judged by its intended meaning but by how it is received.” Therefore, “Redskins” would be banned from the paper, which is called the Playwickian. (Talk about questionable names.)

The young editors attracted cheers from advocates of frisky student journalism. But the school’s principal, Robert McGee, wasn’t pleased. “I don’t think that’s been decided at the national level, whether that word is or is not (offensive),” McGee said. “It’s our school mascot.” McGee, who said he had consulted with the school solicitor, added: “I see it as a 1st Amendment issue running into another 1st Amendment issue.”

Despite my identification with the upstart editors, my reading on the 1st Amendment issue favors the school. In 1988, in Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, the Supreme Court drew a distinction between an individual student’s right of free speech and the contents of a school newspaper. The latter issue, Justice Byron White wrote, “concerns educators’ authority over school-sponsored publications, theatrical productions and other expressive activities that students, parents and members of the public might reasonably perceive to bear the imprimatur of the school.”

Put another way, the principal is the publisher of the student paper, and as “real life” journalists know, the publisher has the final word.

The Student Press Law Center, an admirable organization, suggests that the student editors at Neshaminy High might derive some additional protection from the Pennsylvania school code. One section of that document says that students “have a right and are as free as editors of other newspapers to report the news and to editorialize.” Another warns that school officials “may not censor or restrict material simply because it is critical of the school or its administration.”

But — surprise, surprise — editors of school newspapers in Pennsylvania are subject to conditions that don’t restrict their professional counterparts. For example, the code says that school officials “may edit other material that would cause … interference with school activities.” One such activity is to encourage support for the school’s teams; in fact, according to USA Today, the welcome sign at the school sometimes reads “Everybody do the Redskin Rumble.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, told USA Today that he understood that “there’s an inclination to want to protect a tradition at the school.” But he said that “the 1st Amendment is a longer and a better-established tradition.”

Except that there is no tradition that the 1st Amendment protects student papers at public high schools in exactly the way it protects “real” newspapers. As the Supreme Court said in Hazelwood (quoting another decision): “We have nonetheless recognized that the 1st Amendment rights of students in the public schools ‘are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings.’ ”

That’s also an important lesson for the editors of the Playwickian to learn.


McManus: JFK, a presidency on a pedestal

Typhoon Haiyan and the language of disaster

Esperanza Spalding: Music to shine a light on Guantanamo Bay

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • Free speech still under siege in the Ivy League
    Free speech still under siege in the Ivy League

    On April 15, 1974, William Shockley, the Nobel laureate who believed that blacks were less intelligent than whites, was supposed to debate William Rusher, the publisher of the National Review, at Yale University on the topic: “Resolved: That society has a moral obligation to diagnose and treat...

  • 'Boobies bracelets' heading for the Supreme Court?
    'Boobies bracelets' heading for the Supreme Court?

    In 1969, in a case involving children who were disciplined for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court ruled that students don't "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."  Now the court is being asked to take a case...

  • 'Boobies,' the courts and free speech
    'Boobies,' the courts and free speech

    The courts must protect the rights of students to express themselves on social and political issues.

  • Bruce Jenner interview: My brain is more female than male
    Bruce Jenner interview: My brain is more female than male

     In the 1970s, Bruce Jenner was a symbol of American masculinity as an Olympic champion. Nearly 40 years later, in an extraordinary television interview, Jenner told the world that he identifies as a woman and has felt gender confusion since he was a little boy growing up in the New York suburbs.

  • Chicago to return residents to ComEd
    Chicago to return residents to ComEd

    Little more than two years ago, Chicago became the largest city to ditch its traditional electricity supplier, Commonwealth Edison, and venture into the marketplace in search of better deals for its residents.

  • Emanuel names Claypool to 3rd stint as mayoral chief of staff
    Emanuel names Claypool to 3rd stint as mayoral chief of staff

    Mayor Rahm Emanuel has turned to old friend and City Hall veteran Forrest Claypool to be his new chief of staff as the mayor tries to deal with a growing scandal at the Chicago Public Schools and confront a series of lingering, serious problems facing the city as he heads into his second term.