THE BLOG
11/15/2013 03:37 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Pennsylvania School Demands Students Keep Using Racial Slur

If you're looking for the dumbest thing a high school administration has done this year, you can probably stop looking.

Student newspaper editors at Neshaminy High School in Pennsylvania recently attracted a bit of attention when they published an editorial explaining they wouldn't use the football team's name, "Redskins," in print, writing in an editorial that the term "is racist, and very much so."

Living in the Washington, D.C. area, I knew the supporters of the team weren't going to like that decision. And that's fine -- you don't have to like everything a newspaper does or doesn't do.

But I didn't anticipate the school would insist that students keep using the word. But students say they have been told that they must continue using the term "Redskins" until a hearing on November 19 to decide whether they have the right not to say a word.

And then the administration did this, as reported by the Student Press Law Center:

Shortly after the initial email, a full-page advertisement was submitted that reads "Neshaminy Redskins, nearly a century of school and community, history pride and tradition, go Skins," McGoldrick said. The advertisement, paid for by an alumnus of the class of 1972, was submitted to the staff by Tom Magdelinskas, the school's vice principal of co-curriculars.

Before we go any further, let me lay this out for you: this is compelled speech. In a country where we've known for 70 years that you can't force students to say the Pledge of Allegiance, Neshaminy High School is trying to force students to say "Redskins."

There's no legal test for this, it's per se unconstitutional. You cannot force students to say things -- and the fact that the school thinks the word "Redskins" is more powerful than the words "under God" suggests to me that, perhaps, the principal has lost perspective on this issue.

Furthermore, forcing students to go to a hearing to defend their right not to use a racial slur is an infringement on those rights. You can't burden a fundamental right by forcing students to jump through hoops to use it.

Forcing students to attend a hearing to defend the right not to say a racial slur is like forcing someone to attend a hearing to determine if she has the right to go out in public with her face uncovered. A school administrator cannot use his total ignorance of basic civil rights as a basis for infringing on the rights of others.

Nor is that ignorance remotely justifiable, considering that the basic legal principle that says you can't force students to say words was last changed during FDR's presidency.

School board President Richie Webb has another, equally goofy rationale for why he expects students to educate him on why they don't have to print racial slurs (this again from the SPLC story):

Webb said he believes the Playwickian editors' decision infringes on the free speech rights of students and advertisers who want to use the term.

"Bottom line is, if people take an editorial class, are we taking away their right to freedom of speech? Are you not allowed to use 'Redskins' even if you want to?" Webb asked.

A basic understanding of the concept of a newspaper ought to be a sufficient level of education for anyone to understand why editorial decisions don't trigger any First Amendment problems. Just in case, I'll walk you through it.

Let's start outside the context of the newspaper.

If I wanted to call some high school administrators bigots (totally hypothetical, I assure you), and I wanted to paint that on the side of the school building, is it an infringement on my speech rights to stop me from doing it?

Of course not. I don't have a right to paint on the side of the school, so stopping me from painting on the side of a school can't infringe my non-existent "vandalism right." The school building is state property held for a specific purpose, and that purpose isn't for me to hurl slurs at people.

That's how the property in a public school works. When the quarterback throws a pass during a Neshaminy high school football game, the only people eligible to catch that pass are the other football players. There's no "right" for a student to rush on to the field and substitute his judgment for the judgment of the players.

School newspapers are within the control of their editors -- the definition of a newspaper presupposes editorial control. Students who like using the name Redskins are free to do it anywhere else, just as students who enjoy football are free to catch all of the footballs that aren't in use by the team during a game.

What happens next? Presumably, either the school will see reason or they'll put the students in a position where they'll have to pursue legal options to defend their rights. But given there's a school board meeting on the 19th, I think you should let the school board know your feelings in advance.

This isn't really about how anyone feels about the football team's name. This is about forcing students to say something they don't want to say. Schools can't indoctrinate by force or convert by bullying. If this is about school pride, I can assure you, Neshaminy administrators, you aren't making anyone proud right now.