NAJA joins SPJ, the Student Press Law Center and others in renouncing Neshaminy School Board actions

Posted by Rebecca Landsberry on 10/14/2014

INDIANAPOLIS –The Native American Journalists Association, The Society of Professional Journalists and Student Press Law Center, along with 16 other organizations, are urging education leaders to renounce the actions of the Neshaminy School District in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for punishing student journalists and their adviser for resolving not to use the school’s mascot name, a dictionary-defined racial slur, in its publication. 

The organizations sent a letter Monday to the National School Boards AssociationNational Association of Secondary School PrincipalsAmerican Association of School Administrators andNational Association of State Boards of Education, outlining their concern for teachers and students in the field of scholastic journalism.

In the letter, the journalism organizations also request a meeting with the education associations’ leaders to work together on developing a “summit” with the goal of formulating a set of standards for educationally responsible governance of journalism education, and for the ethical treatment of student voices in general.

During the 2013-14 school year, student editors of the Playwickian newspaper resolved to refrain from publishing the name of the school’s athletics mascot, which they – along with many leading voices in mainstream professional journalism – regard as a racial slur. 

In addition to Principal Rob McGee and members of the Neshaminy School Board introducing district policies that would force the student newspaper to use the word (a violation of the First Amendment and the Pennsylvania Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities), McGee, on Sept. 16, issued a directive suspending journalism adviser Tara Huber from her position for two days without pay. He also removed Playwickian editor Gillian McGoldrick from her position for a month and “fined” the newspaper $1,200, an approximate cost of the June edition that was published without the racial slur. 

“It is disgraceful and an embarrassment that a school district in 2014 would punish students and a teacher for NOT using a racial slur in its student newspaper, not to mention the total disregard for the First Amendment,” said SPJ President Dana Neuts. “Ms. Huber, Miss McGoldrick and the other students on the newspaper staff should be commended for standing up for what is right, even though people in positions of authority over them disagree.”

While policies purport to be based on, and legitimized by, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the publications and social media policies in Neshaminy extend well beyond the boundaries set by the Court in that case (for example, requiring that the faculty adviser delete any material from social media accounts affiliated with the newspaper if the material “has been posted for a reasonable length of time.”)

“Our schools are good at giving lip service to ‘civic engagement, ‘but as soon as students actually begin engaging civically on issues of local education policy, too often they are swatted down,” Frank LoMonte, SPLC executive director and the letter’s author, said. “These student journalists are doing exactly what we should want all journalists to do: Giving a voice to those in their community who are unrepresented and unheard. If they had shown comparable leadership in any field other than journalism – debate or music or sports – their school board would be presenting them with an award. It’s time that good journalism stopped being a punishable disciplinary offense.”

Journalism education is an irreplaceable part of a well-rounded public education and a civically healthy school, especially now that essentially every student has access to the power of digital publishing and is bombarded with online information of varying reliability, the letter states. 

“We want to ensure that no student must ever learn, and no teacher must ever work, in an environment of hostility toward the exchange of challenging views on social and political issues,” LoMonte said.