Following in the footsteps of Slate, The New Republic, and Mother Jones, the editors of a high school student newspaper in Philadelphia, PA. recently decided to stop using the word "Redskins" — also the name of their mascot at Neshaminy High — in their publication. You know, due to its well-known history of offensiveness to Native Americans, a fact that had even President Obama agreeing that he'd consider a name change if he owned the Washington sports team. Pretty uncontroversial stuff, you'd think — until the students got together to officially ban the word and school officials objected. Really.
As though straight out of a Roald Dahl novel, the principal of Neshaminy High, Robert McGee, not only ordered the editors to put the ban on hold until after a hearing on November 19, but also mandated that the paper, The Playwickian, run a full-page, $200 ad in celebration of the "Redskin" name.
"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," said McGee. "I see it as a First Amendment issue running into another First Amendment issue."
The principal's reasoning? All 2,600 of the students at Neshaminy are required to write a piece for The Playwickian, and banning the word "Redskins" might detract from their ability to say what they like. But the decision to ban the word had been in the works for a while, and was backed by 14 of 21 of the paper's staff members. “The word ‘Redskin’ is racist and very much so. It is not a term of honor, but a term of hate,” the members explained.
"Detractors will argue that the word is used with all due respect. But the offensiveness of a word cannot be judged by its intended meaning, but by how it is received," reads an editorial in The Playwickian.
The term has a long history of controversy, but the "Redskins" name still holds a surprising amount of fans — almost four out of five Americans don't think the team should change its name. Reads a section of the paper's editorial:
"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."
After the vote to ban the term passed, those who disagreed were still given space — equal space, in fact — in the paper to publish their opposing viewpoint. Funnily enough, as soon as the school administration decided to crack down on the ban, both sides came together to defend the paper's decision.
"People are (saying), 'Just give in. It doesn't really matter.' But it's a huge deal, that we're being forced to say something that we don't want to," said the 16-year-old editor-in-chief, Gillian McGoldrick.
According to Ken Paulson, president of The First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, the administrators can't actually make the students print "Redskins" in the paper. "The government, the school administration, can only limit what they publish if it is something that interferes and undercuts the educational process. In this case, it is absolutely at the heart of education to allow students to make decisions about how we refer to others," said Paulson.
Really, it seems that for Neshaminy High — a school named after a once local Indian tribe — the issue is less about the term "Redskins," and more about the fact that the student editorial board of a school newspaper debated, voted, and chose to cut a term they deemed offensive, and that process has now been entirely undermined by school authorities. This is the next generation of legislators, learning that they will be vetoed by those with more power. Just what we need from education.
Image: NS Newsflash via Flickr