Unsigned Editorial: The Importance of our First Amendment

“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” was the court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines School District in 1969.

It really doesn’t have an effect until it is personal. Until it is felt to have the first amendment twisted, it is difficult to comprehend. Today, the debate is everlasting on the issues of this ruling and truly how much freedom students have.

The Playwickian Editorial Board has been told that their decision to refrain from using the R-Word in the newspaper is “on hold” until a hearing on Nov. 21. This decision by administrators is a clear infringement on the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

In the October issue of the Playwickian newspaper, two-thirds majority of the Editorial Board agreed to not use the “R-Word” in further issues. Each one of the editors took a vote and explained their reasoning behind the decision.
Now, the authority of the Editorial board is being questioned on whether or not they can make a decision of that nature; and whether this policy infringes on others, namely the staff-writers.

Editors spend countless hours putting together a newspaper. Editors are selected through application and do need writing experience, including one year in the Journalism elective course. The editors have gained immense knowledge from being a part of the Editorial board. This is how the authority is created.

In 1998, there was a case of student journalists at Lexington High School in Massachusetts who refused to print an ad submitted by Douglas Yeo encouraging sexual abstinence by students.
The school had maintained the policy that student editors were allowed to control the content of their publications.

Yeo filed a lawsuit in federal district court claiming that denying this ad was infringing on his freedom of speech and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.

The district court found that since the students, not school officials, made content decisions regarding ads, the refusal of Yeo’s ad was legal. Students should not be considered to “act” as state officials because decisions made by student editors are not attributed to the school.

The First Amendment limits censorship by the government, but courts generally have said that although school officials are considered government, actions of student editors at public schools are not. This court case ruling is utter proof that student editors have the authority to make the decision of the content that will appear in the newspaper.

Compelled speech is when words are forced rather than restricted like most cases. In 1943, the case of West Virginia Board of Education vs. Barnette protected students who chose not to salute for the pledge of allegiance.

“Words uttered under coercion are proof of loyalty to nothing but self-interest,” said Justices Hugo Black and William Douglas in the court ruling. Why force something upon someone that isn’t wanted? It is an easy question to answer. It is because power is more important than opinion.

On Friday, Nov. 1, the Playwickian received an advertisement with the words “Redskin…a tradition for almost a century” and were told the ad must be placed in the paper. It was implied that the editor’s had no choice , but to publish the ad. Going against a belief of two-thirds of the board, this caused uproar from the editors of going great strengths to fight for their First Amendment.

On Thursday, Nov. 14, the editors received a late-breaking notice that the Class of 1972 Neshaminy alumni who had given the ad decided to pull the advertisement. Yet, this decision still upheld the compelled speech of the R-Word until a hearing to decide otherwise.

The decision to refrain from using the R-Word was a majority view. Just like any other newspaper, there is an opinion section. People are viewing this situation from an emotional standpoint.

The mascot may be a long-lasting tradition, but so is freedom of speech and there is no reason it should be taken away from a group of students with an opinion.

It is understood that there are some instances where students’ freedom of speech has its limitations. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier that public school students do not have the same First Amendment rights as adults.

When a publication is not a public forum of expression, there will be certain situations that censorship may occur. This court ruling was a devastating blow for scholastic journalism and it gives officials the right to censor or compel when it is believed necessary.

School officials’ censorship must be reasonably related to legitimate educational concerns as stated in the Hazelwood ruling. No matter what way it is viewed, the mascot has no educational purpose; it is merely a skewed symbol of tradition and spirit for the high school. Compelling the editors to use the word easily takes away feelings of pride in the high school. It turns it into a place where to be accepted, opinions cannot differ.         
Taking the mascot out of the equation, if this were any other word that was chosen to be left out of the paper, it would not be as strong-willed of a debate. The school is so latched onto the mascot that the right of student journalists’ loses its importance.

Censorship and compelled speech go hand-in-hand and this ad is a grotesque example of it. It truly is about being put into perspective. The opinion of the Editorial Board does not matter because it is a minority view.

The fact that there is already a case law allowing student editors to refuse ads they deem offensive or inappropriate gives an understanding that tradition is much more important than freedom of press to our administration.

The Playwickian Editorial Board has presented numerous examples of evidence to promote our authority to make decisions regarding the content of the newspaper.

The editors respect the fact that the newspaper needs prior approval by school officials before being printed, but we expect the same respect of our First Amendment freedom of press in return.