I’ll be keeping an eye on The Playwickian during the coming school year.
For those unfamiliar, The Playwickian is the student newspaper for Neshaminy High School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. This particular student newspaper is currently embroiled in a struggle with its school board over the use of the word “Redskins,” the nickname of the school’s athletic teams.
The students don’t want to use the word, calling it derogatory. The administration has told them they must.
There has been excellent coverage by the Student Press Law Center of the continuing controversy, including the latest move by the school board of passing a new student publication policy that limits student authority over their newspaper. That policy will likely face legal challenge given Pennsylvania’s state education code, which provides comprehensive protection to student speech
In that SPLC article, The Playwickian’s co-editor-in-chief Gillian McGoldrick is quoted as saying ““We’re definitely going to pursue it, it’s just a matter of how. We need to decide what our next step is going to be. We’re not just going to let this happen, we’re going to keep fighting it.”
And this is where I get curious. One challenge with serious student speech issues, like any serious First Amendment issue, is that they tend to drag on. Consider the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines decision – John and MaryBeth Tinker, along with Christopher Eckhardt, were suspended for wearing their armbands to school in December 1965. The U.S. Supreme Court decision that affirmed their right to do so without government reprisal was published in 1969.
Or more relevant to this situation – the Hazelwood Spectrum was censored in 1983, and the Supreme Court’s decision upholding that action was announced in 1988. The legal process takes time, and in that time, passionate student journalists graduate and move on. The students who take their places may not share in that enthusiasm for a free student press, or may be so used to administrator prior restraint that they choose not to fight it.
There’s no indication this is the case in Neshaminy – yet. The students appear strongly committed to their cause, and their adviser, Tara Huber, was named Journalism Teacher of the Year for 2014-2015 by the Pennsylvania School Press Association. The elements for success are present, but this next year will be crucial.
A common counterargument to the idea of free speech and press for high school students is a lack of maturity. If the students of Neshaminy High School can continue to uphold their values and support their right to continue to make smart, responsible editorial decisions, they will go a long way toward erasing that stereotype and forwarding the cause of student speech.
And for those students of The Playwickian: