Critique and graphic by: Chris Talbot-Heindl
A group of high school students do what NFL team managers are too chicken shit to do (according to Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, this is because it would be super expensive to do the right thing), and the school responded by sending these brave individuals to the principal’s office for sentencing.
Neshaminy High School students on the school’s newspaper banned the term “redskins” from the newspaper, which happens to be the school’s sportball team’s nickname. The Playwickian editors admonished the term and barred the use of “redskins” in an October 27th editorial.
“Detractors will argue that the word is used with all due respect,” the editorial stated, “But the offensiveness of a word cannot be judged by its intended meaning, but by how it is received.” The editorial was backed by 14 of the 21 staff members; the rest of which wrote their own editorial backing keeping “redskins” in the newspaper’s lexicon claiming the term “glorifies, not derogates.” “Neshaminy creates their own definition of Redskin, apart from the barbaric word that dictionaries classify it as” they claimed.
The critical editorial continued, “It is one of the most controversial issues in Neshaminy’s history. It is a topic that no one wants to discuss, but one that needs to be discussed. It is Neshaminy’s nickname, its mascot, its pride. The Redskin, Neshaminy’s longtime moniker, has come under fire from community members for its racist origins and meaning time and time again, all to no avail. Many, if not most, community members and students have shown that they do not wish to have the nickname changed; some don’t find it racist (quite the opposite, they think it honors those indigenous to the area), others just want to maintain the tradition. The Playwickian has come to the consensus that the term Redskin is offensive.”
This is not entirely unprecedented, as news editors from the Neshaminy paper have pledged to stop using the term “redskins” as far back as 2001, but this time, the staff is taking it on full-force. The mascot of Neshaminy High School is “Redskins,” a kick-back to the Lenape Native Americans that used to live in the area.
The response has been mixed, with a judge at a student journalism contest offering Playwickian a top award saying, “You are not afraid to write about the hard and sensitive issues. You take risks on editorial pages – bravo!”
But the principal is not as impressed. Principal Robert McGee ordered the editors to put the “redskins” ban on hold and ordered a meeting. McGee said the editors’ motives were “valiant” but says that the issue is that one groups rights are now being pitted against another’s. He says that the 2,600 students at the school must each publish an article in the paper for course credit, and banning them from writing about the Neshaminy Redskins is unfair and unjust.
“I don’t think that’s been decided at the national level, whether that word is or is not [offensive]. It’s our school mascot. I see it as a First Amendment issue running into another First Amendment issue.”
I would like to remind McGee of a basic civics lesson he may have missed in high school – namely that the freedom of the press to express different ideas and a limitation of “free speech” on the harm principle is a completely different animal. Limitations of free speech include hate speech, which any sane person would accept pejorative terms used as mascots to be so (except those who can’t seem to overcome their white privilege.)
After admonishing the teen editors, McGee then forced them to publish an ad submitted by the Class of ’72 alumnus celebrating the “Redskin” mascot.
The students are getting backlash from adults and school administration representatives. But student editor Eishna Ranganathan, 15, says that the editors are holding their ground. “We had been debating this, but now that it is taking flight, we feel we definitely need to take a stand.”
Reed Hennessy, the paper’s sports editor informed Student Press Law Center that Principal McGee emailed the students, “I don’t think you have the right to not use the word Resdkins,” and added that the email said the paper had to continue to use the term at least until a hearing that McGee scheduled for November 19 to discuss the issue.
Some parents are expressing their support for these students, including Donna Boyle, a part Native American parent of a student at the school. She says that some parents don’t want the change: “They’re so emotionally tied to that word that they can’t think rationally…you look up the word and see it’s a racial slur…it’s demeaning, degrading, disparaging…but they say, ‘oh, no not in Neshaminy, we’ve redefined the word.” Since she voiced her support for the students, she’s received threats from other parents. “They’ve told me to go back to the reservation, to leave their country, get out of the school district. It’s been bad.”
Legally, according to the Pennsylvania School Press Association, the law supports the students. “They have control over their newspaper,” Robert Hankes says, “in the state…its legal for students to operate a school paper unfettered by the district.”
The school may find themselves in hot water given their reaction to the newspaper’s actions. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said they believe school districts that compel students to use language they find offensive in publication, they could be in real trouble. Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, VA had this to say, “I understand that there’s an inclination to want to protect a tradition at the school. But the First Amendment is a longer and a better-established tradition…It’s exactly what we tell young people in the abstract we want them to do: use their voices in positive ways to bring about social change. And yet when they tried to do it in practice, the school slapped them down. That’s a bad place for an educator to be.”
I’d agree. Forcing students who have the law behind them, and certainly common sense, should not be punished. If they want to get rid of a racist name that flies in the face of a horrific and genocidal history of people who lived and continue to live in that region, all the more power to them. They have in abundance of what people like Dan Snyder, Principal Robert McGee, and all those people harassing Donna Boyle seem to lack – an ounce of empathy or soul. All I can say is that I hope the “hearing” has better common sense than all the “adults” circle jerking about an issue they clearly have no understanding or empathy for.
On November 19, let’s hope that the “hearing” goes in the way of the students. Otherwise, there will be quite a few Neshaminy adults with egg on their face.