Meet Rob McGee. No, he’s the other one…
Over my time in covering student newspapers and the battles they face when dealing with administrators, one thing has become abundantly clear: The more wrong the argument, the more vigorously the administrators enforce it.
This week in Pennsylvania, the adviser to the Neshaminy High School’s student newspaper was suspended for two days. In addition, the student newspaper was docked $1,200 from its printing budget, an obscene amount of money for anyone, let alone a student paper where money is tight to begin with.
The reason? Adviser Tara Huber refused to force her students to print the word “Redskin” in the newspaper.
The Playwickian editors determined last year that the school’s mascot was racist and that that it would not publish the name “Redskin” in the paper at all. When referring to teams, it would use a generic term like “team” or “players” or something like that. When the word emerged in a quote or some other case in which the word could not be changed, the staff agreed to use the Associate Press standard for derogatory terms by using dashes after the first letter (R——).
Principal Rob McGee told Huber she had to override the students’ decision and publish the word as it appeared in a letter to the editor or not publish the paper at all. When she refused, she got an unceremonious 48-hour vacation and a reprimand in her file. In addition, the paper’s editor in chief, Gillian McGoldrick, was suspended from the paper until the end of September.
I’ve trod this ground before when it came to the Fond du Lac situation, where the principal and superintendent demanded prior review for the publication in hopes of cutting stories that were “negative.” The concept of prior review is chilling to free press and it limits actual discourse on key issues that impact students. The idea of an administrator overstepping and demanding censorship is an ugly, stupid thing that should never be allowed.
However, this situation is far, far worse than anything that happened in Fond du Lac for a number of reasons. First, in Fond du Lac, it was a situation that limited expression in certain ways. It prohibited certain content and it held up publication in spots, but the paper came out and the remaining pieces were never withheld. The Neshaminy case is one where the principal is taking an “all or nothing” approach: either print the word or you don’t print the paper. In addition, he’s essentially FINING the paper for attempting to operate a free press.
Second, and more importantly, this goes well beyond the issue of censorship as it relates to student media. In most cases, the argument comes down to the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision, which allows administrators to prohibit content that would disrupt the general workings of the school. The court ruled that the First Amendment isn’t absolute when it came to high school students and that principals and other administrators could step in so they can keep the school running. This has led to all sorts of misapplication of this law with the underlying premise of “I don’t like it so you can’t read it.”
However, in this case, the Student Press Law Center doesn’t go that route in its rebuke of the administration of the school. Instead, it cites a Virginia v. Barnette, a 1943 case that explains that “no government official can compel a student to speak or adopt words with which she disagrees.” In this case, that’s exactly what McGee has done. Use the word “Redskin” or your paper is history.
Stop for just a moment and think about what that means. Let it really soak into the corners of your mind. It’s no longer a case of “I don’t like it so you can’t see it.” Now, it’s “I want it so you damned well better do it.”
What happens when this guy decides that the school mascot should be more even more prevalent in the paper, with references to teams being “scalped” or meetings as “powwows?”
What happens when he wants the boys to be called “braves” and girls to be called “squaws?”
Think beyond those instances and let’s really go for broke…
What happens when this guy decides that LGBTQ students should be referred to as “the queers?”
What happens when this guy decides that black students should be called “negroes?”
It’s easy enough to say, “Come on, Doc. Stop this slippery slope bullshit.” But here’s the thing and there’s really no way of getting around it: The way this is playing out, the principal has unfettered rights to dictate the word choices of others in the school. The bedrock principles of our country are exactly anathema to that idea.
I don’t expect Rob McGee to agree with me on this, nor do I expect anyone on the school board out there to come to grips with this concept any time soon.
After all, it’s hard to see how bad the rules are when you are the people making them.