An ongoing battle between a Pennsylvania principal and the editors of a school newspaper has revived the perennial debate regarding student rights and administrative authority. Opinion writers at the Playwickian, Neshaminy High School’s student publication, printed an editorial announcing the paper would no longer refer to the school mascot as the Redskin. Students claimed the term was offensive to Native Americans. Although the Editorial Board, which also ran a dissenting piece, decisively voted to ban the word, Principal Robert McGee reportedly ordered the editors to discontinue the ban. McGee asserted that he did not believe students should be forbidden from writing about the Neshaminy mascot and maintained the word’s alleged harm had not been determined on a national level.
In the aftermath of the controversy, some have evaluated the circumstances of Neshaminy with Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, both in defense of and opposition to the Playwickian editors. Decided in 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that educators did not violate students’ First Amendment rights by exercising editorial control over school-sponsored publications, provided that administrative action was “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” While the outcome of the case may not be encouraging for the student writers of the Playwickian, the circumstances of the Hazelwood East High School controversy greatly differ from those at Neshaminy. The former situation involved student stories on teenage pregnancy and the impact of divorce on children, where the pregnancy article referenced student sexual activity and the divorce piece featured commentary on parents without their consent.
The editorial, however, did not touch the highly sensitive subjects of teenage pregnancy or marital dissolution. The Playwickian piece instead spoke to a nationally prevalent debate about whether or not the school moniker is offensive. The opinion reached by the Neshaminy students contains sound credentials and meets journalistic standards and offers an opposing perspective. But the opinion also challenges tradition. The Neshaminy administrators should not have addressed the situation by forcibly overturning the newspaper’s ban of the term Redskin. Their action was unwarranted, and a disruption to athletic tradition scarcely constitutes a legitimate pedagogical concern.
Ultimately, the crux of the controversy has more to do with the nature of discourse than supposed political correctness. Schools should celebrate student engagement, not vilify interest in current events. The Playwickian editors exercised critical thinking skills to express an opinion that is neither inappropriate nor invalid. By upending their democratically decided ban, school officials shifted a relatively benign Redskin discussion into an unnecessary First Amendment quarrel. The situation should have been handled by mediation rather than compulsory suppression.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 25 print edition. Christina Coleburn is a staff columnist. Email her at [email protected]