Recently, Neshaminy High School in Bucks County, PA, made a ripple when the student editors of the school newspaper (The Playwickian) decided that they would no longer print the name of the school’s mascot — the Redskins — within its pages. The editors’ reasons focus on sensitivity, as indicated in an unsigned editorial published last October, and mirrors the arguments of others who have petitioned to change the names of teams and mascots that reference Native Americans.
It seems, however, that not everyone likes this decision. The Neshaminy school board took the drastic step (some have called it a “public tantrum”) of proposing a revised policy that would compel student editors to print the word “Redskins” in any student-submitted piece. Initially, the revised policy also would have punished student editors who removed or replaced the word, although the school board appears to have backed away from including such punitive actions. The policy was originally set for a vote on May 21, but has been delayed.
Members of the school board are not the only ones to react negatively to the students who felt crises of conscience. NPR identified a couple of rough diamonds who brought their own colloquial sensibilities to the matter. For example, take this comment by concerned parent Steve Pirritano:
If my son wants to write something proud about being a Redskin football player, the students on that paper, under the law, have no right to tell him he has to take the word ‘Redskin’ out of there.
Boiled down, the argument is simple: That Perritano Jr. has the right to say whatever he wants without anybody saying boo about it.
My friends, we are clearly dealing with the epitome of legal genius.
In fact, Mr. Perritano has the issue completely backwards. The Playwickian, along with all other student-run newspapers in Pennsylvania, is governed by the PA Code Section 12.9. In particular, part (g) provides five requirements, summarized as follows:
- Student newspaper editors are as free to edit as the editors of any other publication (subject to points 4 and 5 below).
- Supervising school officials may remove offensive material or edit material that would cause substantial disruption or interference with school activities
- School officials may not censor or restrict material simply because it is critical of the school or its administration
- Officials have prior approval privileges, but they must approve within a specified time limit or the material is considered automatically approved
- Students not on the newspaper staff can submit stories according to written policies and procedures
Perritano seems to believe that whatever his son writes must be published in the school newspaper verbatim, but that is explicitly not the case. PA law is clear that student editors have the same rights as other editors, and students who submit pieces for publication in the student newspaper must follow the policies and procedures established by those editors. If that policy includes (among other things) not printing the word “Redskins,” then such policies are are perfectly within the realm of editorial privilege. This is no different than The New York Times’ refusal to print a variety of words it doesn’t like.
Regardless of the PA law, however, it is right and proper for editorial boards — including, and perhaps especially, student editorial boards — to have control over the editorial process. It has never been the case that writers automatically get to have their works published without editorial involvement. Yeah, yeah, “freedom of speech,” First Amendment, blah, blah, blah. Freedom of speech is an acknowledgement of the right of people to say whatever they want. However, such rights do not extend any privilege to be published in a particular periodical. Even the PA Code above tacitly requires students to follow the written criteria established by the newspaper’s (student) editorial staff.
Moving beyond Perritano’s perceived privilege, these regulations also highlight what the school board gets wrong. By any objective measure, the school board does not have the legislative authority to compel student editors to print any particular content, even if only one word. Quite to the contrary, the first requirement implies exactly the opposite, that the school board cannot compel any content, since the student editors are “as free as editors of other newspapers.” School officials act as supervisors who may remove libellous or offensive material or edit material that may be disruptive, but neither of those criteria fit this case.
According to the Bucks County Courier Times, the school “board members have defended the measure, saying the policy will protect other students’ first amendment rights from censorship.” The irony here is that it’s the school board, not the student editors, who are attempting to trampling on first amendment rights — which includes the right of editorial privilege, as explicitly identified in the PA code — in favor of a perverted perception of “rights” that simply do not exist.
At any rate, if student newspapers are supposed to provide students with real-world experience related to editing and publishing, then it seems that these students are getting an education far beyond the typical one. I just hope they remember it for a long time, and that they continue to fight against crotchety school boards and all other meddling government agencies that try to impose top-down values and compel publishers to produce content that they morally disagree with.
n.b. Clearly, I have no problem using the word “Redskins” to refer to teams that are named such. Actually, I think the students’ editorial policy is kind of silly, and had I been a student editor at Neshaminy, I probably would have voted along with the minority to continue using the word in reference to the school’s sports teams. However, independent publishers are allowed to adopt silly policies, and that’s the right that’s at stake here. Anyone who wants to use the word is free to find another outlet — and ultimately, that’s the real freedom in “freedom of speech.”