Student Newspaper Bans R-Word, Braces for First Amendment Fight
In October 2013, the staff of the Playwickian, the student newspaper of Neshaminy High School Redskins in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, became one of the first in the country to ban the use of the word “Redskins.” A year later, its editor in chief, Gillian McGoldrick, is returning to her position after being suspended for banning the word.
According to McGoldrick, 17, a senior, a Native American parent in the area began attending school board meetings during the 2012-2013 school year and expressing concern over Neshaminy High School’s mascot – one they share with the Washington NFL team. “We began to actually listen to what she had been saying,” McGoldrick told ICTMN. “At this same time, Obama had publicly spoken against the mascot name. We decided that maybe we should have some conversation about what the true meaning of the mascot was and if it were, indeed, a racial slur.”
After a 14-7 majority vote, the paper decided to no longer use the word. “To put it at it's simplest, the term is derogatory, outdated and a slur,” said McGoldrick. “Some of the editors reached out to the most local tribe to see what they had to say about the term… It was obvious that they did not favor that as a mascot name.”
In June 2014, the Playwickian received a letter to the editor arguing against the new policy and repeatedly using the term. Neshaminy High School’s principal, Ron McGee, wanted the letter printed verbatim, but the staff withheld publication and instead printed their reasoning.
The decision was met with an updated publications policy from the school board stating that the board’s intentions in permitting the mascot were not racist, and therefore the newspaper was violating the First Amendment rights of other students by banning the use of the word.
“To be clear,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, “The school district -- operating under the guise of protecting the free-speech rights of students to say ‘Redskins’ in the newspaper -- has entirely stripped away all free-speech rights from student journalists by way of a retaliatory ‘publications policy’ so that the word ‘Redskins’ is literally the only word that any student can confidently say without fear of punishment.”
Throughout the past year, McGee, who was unresponsive for comment, fined the paper $1200, attempted to restrict staff access to the Playwickian website and social media accounts and finally suspended McGoldrick from her position for one month, and the paper’s adviser, Tara Huber, for two days.
“This will have to be settled in the courts,” said LoMonte. “We do not have any doubt that the school districts course of conduct will be found to violate both the First Amendment and Pennsylvania state law. [It is] literally the most extreme anti-student policy we have ever seen in any school district in America.”
An outpouring of support on a national level has continued to pour in. Most recently, the SPLC, which as been involved from the beginning, and has written two letters on behalf of the Playwickian staff over the course of the past year, released a statement on Monday along with 18 other organizations including the Native American Journalists Association and the Society of Professional Journalists.
“Journalism education is an irreplaceable part of a well-rounded public education and a civically healthy school,” the letter states. “The teaching of journalistic skills, ethics and values is more essential than it has ever been, now that essentially every student has access to the power of digital publishing and is bombarded with online information of varying reliability.”
In September, the Dragon Press of Foothill Technology High School in Ventura, California, began an IndieGoGo campaign to help raise the $1200 fine and $1200 to cover the lost pay incurred by Huber’s suspension. As of publication, the students have raised $6655, with 32 days left in the campaign.
“From The Washington Post to a school in Texas wearing armbands in solidarity with my teacher, there aren't even words to describe how incredible people have been toward us,” McGoldrick said.
In 2013 the National Congress of American Indians published a report on the history and impact of mascotry, focused mainly on the Washington NFL team.
“The use of racist and derogatory ‘Indian’ sports mascots, logos, or symbols, is harmful and perpetuates negative stereotypes of America’s first peoples,” states the report. “Specifically, rather than honoring Native peoples, these caricatures and stereotypes contribute to a disregard for the personhood of Native peoples.”
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