Communities

One Year Later, Teenage Journalists are Still Schooling Their Principal on Integrity  

by Sarah Stankorb

October 7, 2014
Illustration by Josh Covarubbius

In Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, students wear face paint to football games. There is a mascot in headdress. This is just kids having a good time, or so many locals believe. For generations, their local team has been the “Redskins.” But since student journalists voted to ban publication of the offensive term last October, the administration has handed down a series of punishments: editor Gillian McGoldrick was suspended from her post for a month, the newspaper’s co-curricular adviser was suspended without pay for two days, $1,200 was withdrawn from the newspaper’s account, and a new school board policy requires at least 10 school days’ time for pre-approval of content by the principal, whose own newsletter is called “Redskin Rumblings.”

It’s a fight over words (and against discrimination) that has turned into a full-blown battle over student press rights.

In recent years, Donna Boyle, a Neshaminy resident, has been calling for the school board to change the mascot. Her younger son attends the high school; her eldest is an alum. Boyle, who is part Choctaw and Cherokee, has argued that the term is racist and defies the district’s own anti-discrimination policy. Hers has been a largely lonely voice, until last fall, when some young journalists finally heard her.

“When we first started this conversation, pretty much a year ago, I was on the other side of it. I thought it was tradition,” said student editor McGoldrick during a phone interview. But she heard what the word meant to Boyle and how it hurt her, and began to rethink her position.

McGoldrick was part of the student editorial board that last October voted 14-7 to ban the use of “Redskins” from their school paper, The Playwickian, instead publishing “R-------.” (This was 10 months before The Washington Post would ban the term from its editorials.)

The Playwickian editorial and the dissenting opinion published with it each won awards for student writing, but also resulted in a call to the principal’s office for the editorial staff. Last October, after the editorial asserted “The word ‘Redskin’ is racist, and very much so. It is not a term of honor, but a term of hate,” the teen editors were put under mounting pressure to reverse course. The principal, Robert McGee, argued they were impinging upon the First Amendment rights of their classmates who might want to write about the school’s teams. The newspaper staff was later forced to run a full-page ad celebrating the “Redskins” name.

Things came to a head last June, when a student (and son of a school board member) submitted a letter to the editor that used the R-word three times. According to another student editor, Reed Hennessey, The Playwickian planned to follow newspaper policy and replace the term with “R-------.” But when they submitted the paper for review with the principal, McGee and school board members told the students “we had to print the letter to the editor, with the word spelled out, or we weren't allowed to print the paper at all,” remembers Hennessey. “We decided as a group of editors to not publish the letter…and instead leave an editor's note about what was going to be there and why it's not there anymore.” This act later resulted in the adviser’s punishment and the suspension of McGoldrick, then editor in chief, from the paper.

It’s certainly shown me what can happen when you persevere and do what you believe is right. It doesn’t go unheard when you do something good, and then you get punished for it.

And once the paper published—with the offensive letter to the editor deleted—the principal began confiscating papers in a shopping cart.

In the time since, the school board has enacted Policy 600, which among other things deems all student publications to be “government speech” and, in a very 1984 turn, dictates that “The term ‘Redskins’ when referring to the School District mascot and when used to express the writer’s viewpoint about the term shall not be construed as a racial or ethnic slur and is not intended by the Board of School Directors as a racial or ethnic slur.”

McGoldrick remembers being called to the principal’s office last June after cutting the fateful letter to the editor. “Everybody was so angry. The district was so angry. The community was so mad at us, for not publishing this editorial,” she said. “They love it. They love this tradition.”

But in the time since, The Washington Post came out in support of the students, Keith Olbermann blasted the principal, and students at other schools began wearing armbands in solidarity with Playwickian editors. Student journalists at the Foothill Dragon Press have also launched an Indiegogo campaign to replace Playwickian newspaper funds and recoup their teacher’s pay. Student sentiment is changing within the district. Slowly.

“The school board themselves and the administration, and then a large group of people who just generally see this as an issue with a mascot…they haven’t changed. There’s a lot more students certainly starting to see this as a student rights issue,” said Hennessey, currently the Playwickian editor in chief. The student editors have pro-bono legal representation through the Student Press Law Center. “If it ends up in court, it ends up in court,” Hennessey said.

In the meantime, Playwickian staff is struggling against Policy 600. It takes so long to run a paper through the new approval process that by press-time “anything we write is not really relevant.” Hennessey expressed concerns that future editors will not be allowed to write about political candidates or policies, adding, “they’re basically not going to be allowed to make a paper.”

As the administration and community points to the tradition of its mascot and chips away at students’ press rights, Hennessey wondered, “What about the tradition of our academics?” The Playwickian has been in publication since 1932, “nearly as long as the football team. What about encouraging free speech and intellectual conversations among students and letting them form their own opinions?”

Their right not to publish the R-word is important. Not using the word is also important, Hennessey said, because “there’s a group of people who are dehumanized and because they’re disenfranchised and don’t have the resources to fight it—especially in our local community—they’re just written off.”

The battle over the term has become an absurd crucible that has solidified certain values in these students. McGoldrick wants to be a journalist and hopes to be an editor again one day. Hennessey hopes to keep writing, but will study political science and apply for an Army ROTC scholarship.

Their school, rather inadvertently, has taught them many lessons. McGoldrick easily rattled off relevant cases like Tinker v. Des Moines in conversation. Hennessey said that “it’s certainly shown me what can happen when you persevere and do what you believe is right.” He adds that he’s also learned, “It doesn’t go unheard when you do something good, and then you get punished for it.” 

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One Year Later, Teenage Journalists are Still Schooling Their Principal on Integrity