The United States Patent and Trademark Office may have recently deemed the term “redskin” “disparaging to Native Americans,” but one Pennsylvania high school has just struck down students’ efforts to ban the word from their school paper.
At a meeting Thursday night, Neshaminy School Board members approved a policy that would force the editors of “The Playwickian” to print the name of the mascot, the Redskins, in letters to the editor and in editorials.
“The term ‘Redskins’ when referring to the School District mascot and when used to express the writer’s viewpoint about the term shall not be construed as a racial or ethnic slur and is not intended by the Board of School Directors as a racial or ethnic slur,” the policy states.
Students can, however, censor the word in news articles or if it’s issued as a racial slur, according to the policy. Still, the policy leaves it open for school officials to have the final say on stories, stating that they can hold content from publication for “any reasonable reason.”
The student editors speaking out in favor of nixing the word were disappointed with the outcome, but not surprised by the school’s choice.
“I just felt reaffirmed about my opinions of the school board members — that they weren’t really taking into consideration anything but their personal feelings,” 17-year-old sports editor Reed Hennessy told MTV News. “They’ve received so many letters from [everyone from] alumni to professors — journalism institutions — they didn’t really take that into consideration.”
Hennessy told MTV News that the paper voted on whether or not to use “the ‘R’ word” in “The Playwickian” at the beginning of the year and decided — 14 to 7 — to censor all usage of the term in future issues.
“We wrote an editorial explaining why,” he said. “Then we were given a directive by our administration — specifically Dr. [Rob] McGee, our principal — that we cannot have the right to make that decision. He said we had to publish it.”
The students sprang into action, contacting the Student Press Law Center for aid. The issue came to a head when the paper received a letter to the editor from Steve Pirritano, son of a school board member by the same name, speaking out in favor of the mascot and utilizing the term. The students were told, Hennessy said, to print the letter using the term in full “or we weren’t allowed to print the paper,” he said. They had wanted to censor the word in the text of the letter.
“Instead, we printed an editor’s note describing what was going to be there and why we had to take it out. Then when we distributed the papers they were confiscated by administration. The next day was graduation and we were allowed to distribute at graduation,” he said.
In the future, however, given the new policy, students would be required to publish letters of that ilk in full.
School board members think the final policy is a fair compromise. Stephen Pirritano told Philadelphia CBS local, “We’re confident that this compromise meets the letter of state and federal law … A school environment has certain restrictions. It’s not the same as being a full adult in the private sector. We have two opinions stating that everything we’ve done is proper and legal.”
Furthermore, he doesn’t find the term offensive. “This is a very traditional district, rooted deeply in their heritage and nobody in the district ever believed ‘Redskin’ was used as a derogatory, defaming term,” he said. “All the calls I have gotten about it have honestly been –- support our heritage and they felt that the kids were taking the wrong position.”
Donna Boyle, a Cherokee resident of Bucks County, however, spoke out against this heritage. “How many native Americans need to tell you that it is disparaging?” she said, according to CBS. “Are you going to put a word on your team that has something to do with Jewish people or Irish people, or black people?”
The term “redskin” is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a “usually offensive” word for Native Americans.
The term became a national issue of late when the Washington Redskins recently found their name in jeopardy after the United States Patent and Trademark Office canceled six federal trademark registrations for the team name because it’s “disparaging to Native Americans.” Team owner Daniel Snyder, however, has vowed to never change the name.
The Neshaminy High School students will also not stop fighting any time soon. “I think the only way they’re going to reconsider is through negotiations or legal action — God forbid,” Hennessy said of the school board. But if legal action is what it’s going to take, I’m not going to back down from that.”
MTV News reached out to Principal Dr. Rob McGee and The Board of School Directors for comment but had not received a response at press time.