A number of national media outlets and high-profile newspaper and magazine columnists have quit referring to Washington’s professional football team as the “Redskins” because they believe that the word constitutes at racial slur and should be changed. Now, as the debate over Washington’s name continues, they’re being joined by another newspaper at a Pennsylvania high school.
Neshaminy High School in Bucks County also calls its team the “Redskins,” but henceforth, the school’s student newspaper, The Playwickian, will no longer use the name. “The word ‘Redskin’ is racist and very much so,” the paper’s editorial board, made up entirely of students, explained, as the New York Times reported this week. “It is not a term of honor, but a term of hate.”
The board voted to stop using the word in late October. And their decision is indicative of the debate that is now occurring around the use of Native American imagery in sports. Washington remains the focus of much of that debate, with Native American groups leading the fight against the name and politicians, including President Obama, weighing in against it. But the conversation about such imagery has been occurring at the high school level for decades as schools reconsider common names like Indians and Redskins and the logos that go with them.
On top of that, it has now transformed from a debate about a name into a challenge to students’ legal rights. Neshaminy’s principal, Robert McGee, opposes the paper’s efforts to quit using the name and has called a hearing with the students in charge, covering his argument with the idea that the decision could end up censoring students who wanted to write for The Playwickian and use the name.
The students responded in kind, taking out a full advertisement in the current issue that highlights the freedom of expression clause contained in Pennsylvania’s education code. That section of the code states, in part, “The right of public school students to freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution of the United states and the Constitution of the Commonwealth.” It adds, “Students shall have the right to express themselves unless the expression materially and substantially interferes with the educational process, threatens serious harm to the school or community, encourages unlawful activity or interferes with another individual’s rights.”
The students have argued that the editorial board’s vote to use the name — the anti-“Redskins” voters won 14-7 — demonstrates that it was done with an educational purpose in mind and that McGee and the school cannot reverse their decision. Even the student editors who voted against the proposal to end use of the word are supporting the decision against the school. Legal experts, meanwhile, have said that the argument from McGee that banning use of “Redskins” would censor other students is nonsense. Freedom of expression laws, the Student Press Law Center’s Frank LoMonte told Philly.com, protects from government censorship and intrusion, not from other students at the newspaper.
“A 16-year-old can’t violate your constitutional rights,” LaMonte said. “That’s called editing.”
But while the students at Neshaminy may be legally protected, students at most other student newspapers wouldn’t have the privilege to make a similar decision. The Supreme Court ruled in 1987 in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier that high school students were not fully protected by the First Amendment and that school districts and administrators could limit what they publish. Only eight states have since passed laws extending free press and expression rights to student publications; in addition, Washington state and Pennsylvania extend those rights through student education codes (full disclosure: I participated in a work-study program while attending the University of Kentucky that researched similar legislation in Kentucky and other states).
Neshaminy, then, has now highlighted two important issues: whether we should continue to use names like “Redskins” in sports, and whether students should have the same rights of expression on that issue and others that our country long ago enshrined for other journalists and their publications. If that doesn’t qualify as part of the “educational process” outlined in the Pennsylvania code, nothing could.