Ever since the editors of Neshaminy High’s student newspaper decided not to use the word Redskins - the nickname their teams share with Washington’s NFL franchise - there has been a lot of loose talk about free speech.
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Robert McGee, the principal of the Bucks County school and an opponent of the paper’s new policy, wondered, “How can one group of students limit what another group of students write? It becomes First Amendment vs. Related businesses:
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As we all should have learned in high school civics, though, the First Amendment protects expression from government infringement. When government officials, such as the principal of a public school, decide what may be published, it’s censorship. When editors do, it’s just, well, editing.
A majority of the editorial board of Neshaminy’s Playwickian decided the team name is derogatory toward American Indians, explaining in an editorial, “If racist institutions had remained in other areas of society simply because they were time-honored traditions, America would be a vastly different place.” The paper also carried a dissenting editorial by the minority of editors who don’t mind the term.
Many words never or rarely appear in this and other newspapers because their editors have deemed them offensive. In fact, the term Redskins has been banished from several publications. These are the sorts of decisions editors make, and the Playwickian’s editors made theirs with precocious skill and evenhandedness.
Unfortunately, their principal responded by asking them to reverse the ban, calling a meeting with their parents, and requiring the publication of an advertisement using the name. That ad was eventually dropped, but several student-press advocacy groups placed their own ad citing a school code provision that protects student expression.
Putting aside the students’ good point about the Redskins name, the courts have recognized their right to make it. The U.S. Supreme Court has famously ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The state’s Public School Code offers further protection, stating that student newspaper editors “are as free as editors of other newspapers to report the news and to editorialize.” While the code and case law make exceptions when student expression undermines education, that hasn’t happened here.
Quite the opposite: Free engagement in journalism is educational. Granted, since the term at issue is still in dispute, the editors could amend their policy - for example, by allowing outside contributors to use it. But as a matter of law and learning, that and other editorial decisions should be up to the student editors.