Can You Ban a Word? Pennsylvania Students Testing First Amendment

on March 18 | in Legal | by | with No Comments

When referring to Native Americans, do you think the term “Redskin” is offensive? What about when it’s used as a mascot?

Well, when President Obama along with some Native American activist groups and a handful of media outlets all challenged the Washington Redskins’ arguably offense moniker earlier this year, it immediately sparked a national discussion over whether the NFL should step in and force Washington to change their nickname, mascot, and essentially entire brand. Perhaps predictably, the Redskins weren’t too fond of that idea —some Pennsylvania high school students, however, took that notion and ran with it.

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History

            In a suburban town located just outside of Philadelphia, the student editors of Neshaminy High School’s newspaper decided the word “Redskins” was inappropriate for print. But here’s the catch — Neshaminy is named for a nearby creek where the Lenape Indians once lived, and a lot of people do think it’s appropriate. In fact, the school is actually a high school football powerhouse, and a large portion of the student body, alumni, and faculty are very proud of their beloved mascot.(True to point, sometimes the sign in front of the school reads “Everybody do the Redskin Rumble.”)

            So like any high school activity that gets too much attention, the Neshaminy High School administrators stepped in, urging the students to abandon their barring of the word. The editors of the school’s paper, the Play wickian, started getting pressure from school officials after an editorial in the fall that was critical of the word “Redskins,” ultimately barring it from their paper.

“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,” read the editorial backed by 14 of 21 staff members.

However, this is nothing new for the school. Student editors took issue with the school’s mascot as far back as 2001 when they pledged to stop using the word “Redskins,” though they wavered in commitment. But this year, the staff decided to take the (sitting) bull by the horns.

Legality Issues

            Essentially, this whole issue comes down the First Amendment. Principal Robert McGee, who ordered the editors to put the “Redskins” ban on hold, summed up the issue pretty succinctly by saying that it’s really “a First Amendment issue running into another First Amendment issue.” However, both the student law center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania have stated that the school districts are on uneasy ground if they try to compel students to use a given word, especially one the students consider offensive.

            “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,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.

            So at this point, everyone is just waiting to see what will happen next. Will the school administrators try and continue to compel students to use the word “Redskins?” Or will they back off? And if they do accept the newspaper’s barring of the word, then what will become of the beloved mascot? Only time will tell!

Note: Quotations in this article were originally published in USA Today.

Written by Kellie Bertels, an attorney with the firm Bandré, Hunt & Snider, LLC where they are the leading attorneys Jefferson City MO has to offer.

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