Pennsylvania school faces First Amendment controversy


Photo by Maribeth Eiken

Trisha Chaudhary

When Congress added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, the very first amendment granted people the freedom of speech, among other things. Throughout history America has seen the constant struggle of the Supreme Court trying to interpret this amendment and where government draws the line. This line is especially blurry when it comes to First Amendment rights in schools, as cases like Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier and Tinker v. Des Moines would prove. Though not all cases make it to the Supreme Court, schools and students still face conflicts dealing with First Amendment rights often.

Photo by Maribeth Eiken
Photo by Maribeth Eiken
Neshaminy High School, home of the Redskins, is one such place where students are currently fighting a such battle. The high school is located in Neshaminy, Pa. and is named after a historically local Native American group.
After a Native American parent filed a complaint to the district about the offensiveness of the school’s mascot the staff of The Playwickian, NHS’s newspaper and online news site, delved deeper into the conflict. The 21-member Playwickian editorial board met over the course of several days and after much discussion voted 14-7 in favor of not using the term ‘Redskins’ because of racist connotations. Many other news organizations have vowed not to use the term, particularly in reference to the Washington Redskins.
Discussion “went on for a few days,” Playwickian Editor-In-Chief Gillian McGoldrick said. “We really wanted to get down to what the word really meant to people and people that we were hurting by using it and what we could do to either help or hurt and it really is hurting people. We were constantly going back and forth as to what is the right thing to do here.”
In their October issue, the staff published two editorials: one with the majority view point, saying the Playwickian would no longer use the word Redskin in their publications, and one with a dissenting view, saying that the word stood as a “point of pride” for NHS. Despite their discussion of both sides of the argument, the Playwickian staff received backlash from NHS administration. Pennsylvania’s administrative code states that members of the school’s press “are as free as editors of other newspapers to report the news and to editorialize.1
The principal of NHS “told us there was a hold of policy,” McGoldrick said. “So our policy that we did to remove the word Redskins was on hold until we have a hearing this coming Wednesday, November 19, and until then we can’t deny any advertisements or staff writers’ articles [that include that word].”
The NHS administration, which includes the principal and assistant principals, will attend the trial as well as the superintendent and the editorial board of the Playwickian. Even after the trial, the administration may decide that the Playwickian cannot put their policy into effect, McGoldrick said.

“The word ‘Redskin’ … is not a term of honor, but a term of hate.” -Unsigned editorial published in The Playwickian ”

The staff of the Playwickian is doing what all of those other individuals or groups did in cases that made it to the Supreme Court; they are taking a stand. Mary-Beth Tinker was one of the students involved in the Tinker v. Des Moines case and was 13 at the time. Now she tours the country with Student Press Law Center attorney Mike Hiestand in a bus, running an organization called Tinker Tour U.S.A. She travels in colorful bus, making stops in several cities and “empowering youth voices through First Amendment activism,” according to the website. The Tinker Tour will be in Columbia, Mo. Sunday, Nov. 24 at the Unitarian Church. Tinker believes if students have an opinion, they should be able to voice their thoughts.
“I just think that whatever happens, the students should have some say,” Tinker said. “It’s not up to me to decide, but I think [Redskin is] offensive to other people and should change, whatever it takes to do that, and the students should have a part to play in it. These issues, and discussions, and all this controversy…students have a lot of ideas about and they should be able to express and weigh in on and take part in making the decisions that take our world forward into an equitable caring place and the future.”
Though many would agree with Tinker and McGoldrick’s opinions, RBHS Advanced Placement Government teacher, Chris Fischer, thinks it isn’t that easy. Though all American citizens exercise certain rights, those are subject to be different in public schools, Fischer said. The Tinker case as well as others, reaffirms the fact that those students are to use those rights within reason, and not if they disturb the educational environment, he said.
“There’s a fine line that you walk that students do embrace First Amendment rights at school,” Fischer said, “but there’s also that line too, that if it blatantly disregards or jeopardizes the educational environment you don’t necessarily keep those rights.”
By Trisha Chaudhary
1. Pa. Administrative Code 12.9(g)(1), emphasis added.
The Tinker Tour will be in Columbia, Missouri on Sunday, Nov. 24 at the Unitarian Church. For more coverage about First Amendment rights, click here.