School Board Votes To Force Student Newspaper To Use The Term 'Redskins'. Wait, What?

  • Rick Chandler

So according to Capital News Service statistics, there are 62 high schools still using the “Redskins” nickname for their sports teams, because what better way to teach our children about racism than with a bit of living history? And before you object to that on political grounds, please note that John McCain is on my side.

Here’s a map of the 62 schools that still use that nickname:

Notice the large concentration in Ohio and western Pennsylvania, for whatever reason. And only about six of them in the entire south (with zero in Florida). One might think that this nickname is on the decline, and that’s statistically true: according to CNS, which actually called every school on the list. The 62 schools using “Redskins” is down from 90 schools 25 years ago. According to CNS, 28 high schools in 18 states have trash-canned the Redskins name and mascot since 1988.

The latest were in 2011, as Red Lodge High School in Montana (now the Rams) and Wiscasset High in Maine (Wolverines) both ditched the name.

In a certain part of Pennsylvania, however, things seem to be going in the opposite direction. In October, the staff of the student newspaper at Langhorne (Pa.)’s Neshaminy High, The Playwickian, voted to ban the word “Redskins” from its publication. But the Neshaminu School Board recently voted to overrule the ban, and allow contributors, letter writers and staffers to use “Redskins” in the paper. That’s right: a school board is in essence forcing a student publication to use a word it finds racist and insensitive.

The policy proposed and approved by a board committee would, in part, prevent students from removing the term “Redskins” from any stories, letters to the editor or other items submitted to the newspaper for publication. It also states the term isn’t a racial slur when used in relation to the school mascot or in writings that address the writer’s feelings about the word.

Mike Levin, the attorney representing the school district, said the district is well within its rights to protect the free speech of students who submit articles or letters to the editor to a district publication.

There’s an update here, however. The school board postponed final approval on its action after the student editors got themselves a lawyer, and said lawyer fired off a letter to the board.

In the 12-page letter sent Friday, attorney Gayle Sproul laid out her argument against the proposed policy for The Playwickian, which she called “for the most part, overreaching, intimidating and retaliatory in tone and confusing in construction.

Sproul said in her letter that the student editors have the right to determine whether offensive or derogatory words appear in their newspaper. She also cited dictionary definitions, which state the word is “disparaging and offensive.”

This is one of the few times you’ll ever see school administrators trying to invoke the First Amendment: usually they’re ignoring it. In a 2010 case in Morgan Hill, CA, for instance, four students at Live Oak High School made it a point to wear American flag t-shirts for Cinco de Mayo. School administrators told them to wear the shirts inside-out, to prevent any trouble with those students who might see the shirts as a slap at their cultural heritage. The case went to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court, which ruled that the school had the right to choose student safety over First Amendment rights.

But four years later, there are still Cinco de Mayo protests in front of Live Oak High by American flag-waving adults who think that decision was unfair.

The Neshaminy School Board “Redskins” decision has been postponed to May 21, presumably to give the board time to find out of they can be sued back to the Stone Age for forcing the newspaper to use that word. (Probably, they can be sued). Because in America, stubborn traditionalism often trumps common sense, and a good attorney trumps everything. And that’s your lesson for today, kids (bell rings).