Student Editor Plans To Defy School Board’s Policy On Publishing the R-Word

New school policy might violate state and federal student press laws 

Reed Hennessy, center, the incoming co-editor-in-chief of the Playwickian, says he will not follow a new rule that requires the student newspaper to publish a term offensive to many Native Americans.

Reed Hennessy (center), the incoming co-editor-in-chief of the Playwickian, says he will not comply with a new rule that requires his newspaper to publish a term many Native Americans find offensive.

The incoming co-editor-in-chief of Neshaminy High School’s student newspaper says he won’t adhere to a new school policy that prohibits him or his staff from removing an offensive nickname from editorials or letters to the editor.

Reed Hennessy, a 17-year-old rising senior and an editor at the Playwickian, said the controversial policy passed by the Neshaminy school board late last month will strip student editors of their First Amendment rights.

Editors at the student paper decided in October to ban the nickname for the school’s sports team, which is offensive to many Native Americans and their allies; but some alumni and school board members rejected the decision. The board passed a rule in June that allows the Playwickian to omit the term from news stories, but forbids editors from deleting it from editorials and letters to the editor.

Editors have been fighting school officials over whether the term "Redskins" should appear in the student newspaper for the past nine months.

Editors have been fighting school officials over whether the term “Redskins” should appear in the student newspaper for the past nine months.

The ongoing argument at Neshaminy High School may have broader implications. At the heart of the disagreement is a constitutional question regarding whether the students’ First Amendment rights to adopt editorial policy limiting a word that they deem racist and/or disparaging trumps the First Amendment rights of the school board to ensure all voices are heard, even those that use a word the newspaper’s editors find offensive. More to the point, the argument tests the definition of who controls editorial policy, the students as editors or the school district as a publisher.

The school board’s new policy violates state and federal student press laws and editors will not recognize it, Hennessy said during a Google Hangout Monday night.

“If they (school administrators) want to put the word ‘Redskins’ in the paper, which is clearly what they want to do, then they can do that regardless of what our editorial policy says,” added Hennessy. “It really takes away all editorial control that the students would have and puts it in the hands of the school board, which is what they’ve been trying to accomplish this whole year.”

The disagreement between the student editors and the school board has gotten national attention, and gained more when the US Patent Office recently cancelled the trademarks of Washington, DC’s NFL team, which goes by the same name.

Following the students’ decision to ban the disparaging term, copies of the newspaper were trashed and the editors suffered constant run-ins with school officials. One board member “went so far as to suggest the editors be criminally charged,” reported Karen Heller for a column for Philly.com. Others called for the school board to cut funding to the Playwickian.

Student editors have been locked out of the newspaper’s e-mail and social media accounts and they are also now required to submit articles to administrators for review 10 days before publication instead of three.

After student editors decided to ban the nickname, other newspapers in the state followed in the students’ footsteps, including The Philadelphia Daily News.

 

Here is the full video of the Google Hangout that took place earlier this week. The conversation is hosted by Melissa Cornick who is part Native American and a television news producer.

Comments

comments

Comments

  1. says

    This issue sounds like a teaching opportunity for students entering the media industry. The students initiative was appropriate. And the response from the controlling publishing authority was appropriate. It was a compromise by the publisher to ensure the students maintained control over the voice of the newspaper and the standards it sought to enforce among its reporting staff. At the same time, the publisher limited the control of the editors only in regard to suffocating the voice of the public, even if the editors disagreed with the expressions of the voices in the community. This compromise appears to be one that the student editors wish to fight. I think this is where they need a simple lesson: They don’t own the newspaper.

    At the end of the day, this isn’t as much of a First Amendment issue as it is one of fiscal authority. In the same manner in which a media entity can fire its staff due to decisions by the publisher to move the organization in a direction that differs from the direction established by the editor (see New York Times’ firing of Jill Abramson), the publishers of this student newspaper can, and likely will, enforce their will upon the editors if they do not comply with the compromise.

    It’s a reasonable compromise, although the backlash has been irrational. I think the students should embrace their authority to keep the news sections of the paper free of the term they have successfully banned, and be tolerant of the voice of the community, which may take some time to overcome the inertia of an archaic mindset.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Like the Washington, D.C., NFL team that just lost its trademark, Neshaminy High School has as its mascot a brown man’s face wearing a headdress—and the mascot is called “Redskin,” a term that is offensive to Native Americans. When the editors at the school’s newspaper decided last October that they would omit the derogatory term from their publication, faculty at the Langhorne, Pa., school didn’t have a problem with that move—as long as they continued to use the word in editorials and letters to the editor. Alumni and board members ruled in June that students could leave the term out of strictly-news stories, according to All Digitocracy.  […]

  2. […] Like the Washington, D.C., NFL team that just lost its trademark, Neshaminy High School has as its mascot a brown man’s face wearing a headdress—and the mascot is called “R*dsk*n,” a term that is offensive to Native Americans. When the editors at the school’s newspaper decided last October that they would omit the derogatory term from their publication, faculty at the Langhorne, Pa., school didn’t have a problem with that move—as long as they continued to use the word in editorials and letters to the editor. Alumni and board members ruled in June that students could leave the term out of strictly-news stories, according to All Digitocracy. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *