2:45am

Tue May 6, 2014
Code Switch

Can Student Journalists Ban 'Redskins' From Their School Paper?

Originally published on Tue May 6, 2014 8:34 am

"Redskins."

That word sits at the center of a controversy in suburban Philadelphia. It's pitted student journalists against school board members, but has left the school community largely shrugging its shoulders.

Student editors at Neshaminy High School in Bucks County have vowed not to print the word, which is the school's Native American mascot.

The Neshaminy School Board, however, is expected to vote later this month on a policy that would reverse the ban.

It started with an October editorial in The Playwickian, Neshaminy High School's student newspaper.

In it, the majority of the paper's editors argued that the word "Redskins" smacks of racism and vowed not to print it. (There's a similar, popularly debated issue in the media world: The Pew Research Center reported that in October 2013, at least 76 news outlets and journalists publicly opposed the Washington Redskins' name.*)

Neshaminy junior Reed Hennessy, the paper's sports editor, says continuing to use "Redskins" reflects badly on the school.

"It's really reminiscent of when it used to be socially acceptable to put yourself in blackface and say the N-word. You know, you didn't mean to offend anyone ... in The Jazz Singer when he was in blackface, but people were offended," Hennessy explains. "Same as now, when people put feathers in their hair and paint themselves red and go to a game. It's really the same thing. It's because it's been around for so long that people are holding on to it."

Last week, a Neshaminy School Board committee approved a policy that would block the paper from banning "Redskins" when used in a "non-offensive" way. The measure still needs to be finalized.

At the meeting, board member Steve Pirritano explained why he supports the measure. "If my son wants to write something proud about being a Redskin football player, the students on that paper, under the law, have no right to tell him he has to take the word 'Redskin' out of there," he said.

School board members did not return requests for comment.

At a weekend track meet at Neshaminy, spectators were a bit more talkative — overwhelmingly, about their support for using "Redskins."

Sophomore Matt Busch said the name is about pride, not prejudice:

"It represents our school, Native American pride and our local heritage here. Native Americans lived in this area long before us and it's our tribute to them."

Sitting alongside her husband and daughter, Lynn Dripps said the student editors should keep their opinions on the editorial page.

"They have to remain objective reporters. You don't have somebody on the evening news giving you their political opinion. You know, they're stating the facts," Dripp said. "They're stating the news. And if they're not content with that, then they shouldn't be doing that job."

Neshaminy parent Tom Haines disagrees. He says the students have every right to ban "Redskins" from their articles, and should.

"There's plenty of cases where words can't be used in print, and this, just the opposite, is really outrageous that they are forced to use a word when there's plenty of synonyms. ... If it's sports you can just call them the team and obviously you can refer to them as Neshaminy or the Neshaminy players or athletes. There's no need to use the word that is defined as a racial slur," said Haines.

Hennessy, the newspaper's sports editor, says he won't back down if the policy is adopted.

"Regardless of what you think about the word 'Redskin,' and regardless of what you think about the policy, this policy is taking an entire education opportunity away from students," he says. "It's saying, you can't have this discussion, you can't do this research because it ultimately does not matter what you think. It's like telling us that we can't discuss our thoughts on everything from gun rights to perhaps a piece of legislation that's come up even locally."

If the school board confirms its move to bar editors from keeping "Redskins" out of the paper, Hennessy says they're willing to go to court. They've already hired a lawyer.


*Note: While NPR's ombudsman has written about the use of the word "Redskins," NPR's Deputy Managing Editor Chuck Holmes says that, "Since the name of the team is the Washington Redskins, we use that in our reporting."

Copyright 2014 WHYY, Inc.. To see more, visit http://www.whyy.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Well, the owner of the Washington Redskins has been under growing pressure to change the name of the team which is seen as racist by Native American groups and many others.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

That Redskins name is also at the center of a controversy in suburban Philadelphia. There, student journalists are facing down the school board. Editors of a high school newspaper in Bucks County have vowed not to print the word Redskins, the nickname of the school's sports team, which has prompted the school board to set a vote for later this month on a policy to force the student paper to reverse the ban. From member station WHYY in Philadephia, Aaron Moselle reports.

AARON MOSELLE, BYLINE: It started with an October editorial in The Playwickian, Neshaminy High School's student newspaper. In it, the majority of the paper's editors argued that the word Redskins smacks of racism and vowed not to print it. Sports editor Reed Hennessy says continuing to use Redskins reflects badly on the school.

REED HENNESSY: It's really reminiscent of when it used to be socially acceptable to put yourself in black face and say the 'N' word. You didn't mean to offend anyone when in "The Jazz Singer" when he was in black face, but people were offended. Same as now, when people put feathers in their hair and go to a game and paint themselves red, it's really the same thing. It's just because it's been around for so long that people are holding onto it.

MOSELLE: Last week, a Neshaminy School Board committee approved a policy that would block the paper from banning Redskins when used in a non-offensive way. The measure still needs to be finalized. In a news clip from that meeting, board member and parent Steve Pirritano explains why he supports keeping Redskins in the paper.

STEVE PIRRITANO: If my son wants to write something proud about being a Redskin football player, the students on that paper, under the law, have no right to tell him he has to take the word Redskin out of there.

MOSELLE: School board members did not return requests for comment.

(SOUNDBITE OF STARTING GUN)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's go, Brandon!

MOSELLE: At a weekend track meet at Neshaminy, spectators were a bit more talkative - overwhelmingly, about their support for using Redskins. Neshaminy sophomore Matt Busch says the name is about pride, not prejudice.

MATT BUSCH: It represents our school, Native American pride and our local heritage here. Native Americans lived in this area long before us and it's just, you know, our tribute to them.

MOSELLE: Sitting alongside her husband and daughter, Lynn Dripps says the student editors should keep their opinions on the editorial page.

LYNN DRIPPS: They have to remain objective reporters. You don't have somebody on the evening news giving you their political opinion. You know, they're stating the facts. They're stating the news. And if they're not content with that, then they shouldn't be doing that job.

MOSELLE: Neshaminy parent Tom Haines disagrees. He says the students have every right to ban the term Redskins from their articles and should.

TOM HAINES: There's plenty of cases where words can't be used in print and this, just the opposite, is really outrageous that they are forced to use a word when there's plenty of synonyms - be it if it's sports you can just call them the team and obviously you can refer to them as Neshaminy or the Neshaminy players or athletes. There's no need use the word that is defined as a racial slur.

MOSELLE: Sports editor Reed Hennessy says he won't write or print the word Redskins even if the board policy is finalized. To him, the measure sends a signal that students aren't free to openly debate controversial subjects.

HENNESSY: This is disrupting the educational process that goes on every time us editors meet and debate and write and learn and grow as people. They're really doing more harm than good.

MOSELLE: If the school board moves to bar editors from keeping Redskins out of the paper, Hennessy says they're willing to go to court. They've already hired a lawyer. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Moselle in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program