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Jackson Haines and Gillian McGoldrick say their high-school paper will no longer print the word “Redskin.” (Photo credit: Dave Warner)

One woman ignited a controversy that has embroiled a suburban Philadelphia high school newspaper staff, student body, administration, and the community.

All the tumult is over a single word: Redskins.

Donna Fann-Boyle, part Cherokee and part Choctaw, appeared before the Neshaminy school board in 2013 and implored the school directors to cease using the name “Redskins” for the high school’s sports teams. It was about the tenth time she asked the school, located in her hometown of  Langhorne, Bucks County.

“It’s just so bold, and in your face, and they are just so proud of that word,” she said in a phone interview in July.

It appears that the tenth time’s the charm:Boyle’s appearance last year at the school board meeting prompted editors of the school paper, the Playwickian, to consider the issue and ultimately ban it from their monthly, 3,000-circulation school publication.

The ban wasn’t well received by the school system, which partially outlawed it last month, or even by the editors’ fellow students.

“At the beginning of the year, students were ripping up the papers and throwing them in the hallway, saying they were going to take them home and light them on fire,” said Gillian McGoldrick, 17, a co-editor at the paper.

And coming in the midst of a verdict against the Washington Redskins’ use of their team name, the Playwickian editors’ quest has attracted attention far beyond Bucks County, prompting a debate on the First Amendment rights of student editors, and the power of the school district to govern them.

“We didn’t know this would be a big firestorm,” McGoldrick said. “Our intention was to passively protest our mascot.”

The school district, however, sees the issues over the control of the paper differently than the editors and their lawyers. The board adopted a new set of rules for the Playwickian last month. The rules essentially allow the student editors to ban the word Redskins in news columns. But if they do so in submitted editorials or letters to the editor, that decision could be appealed by the author to the school principal. The principal would have “the final authority in determining what material may be used in accordance with applicable law.”

Adam Goldstein, the attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, VA, said it is clear to him that the issue will eventually be headed to court, possibly at the federal level. Goldstein, whose organization arranged for legal counsel for the student editors at Neshaminy, said the school district’s newly rewritten policy governing the student newspaper contains some clauses that are illegal. One, he said, is an assertion that the school district owns the editorial content the students create.

“There is really no way to force the students to give up ownership of the things they create,” Goldstein said. “The school board is acting like a petulant, despotic two-year-old, except not as smart.”

Michael Levin, the attorney for school district, clearly has another view — that the school newspaper is a curriculum-related activity, just like any other classroom exercise.

“The school district controls the curriculum, and the school district controls how the curriculum is implemented,” he said. “It’s a school district newspaper, it’s not the kids’ newspaper.”

A third lawyer, whom the SPLC found to represent the students, has some assertions of her own. In a letter to Levin, Philadelphia lawyer Gayle Sproul spelled out Pennsylvania law on student publications, calling the actions of the district unconstitutional and a violation of state law.

“I am sure you are aware that students are not obliged to follow administrative directives that conflict with the law,” she wrote.

Trying to make their way through the morass of lawyers, legal opinions, and probable court battles are the student editors who, so far, are showing no signs of budging on the “R-word” issue.

“I understand they have a lot of school pride,” McGoldrick said of the opponents of the Redskin ban, “but it doesn’t necessarily need to be Redskin pride. It can be Neshaminy pride.”

Also rankling McGoldrick and rising Managing Editor Jackson Haines is that the principal will now have 10 days to review the paper before it is published, compared to three days previously, dating their news. They are also bugged by assumptions some people following the saga have made about them.

“I remember reading one comment where somebody said we were just spoiled brats who just have our parents paying for our lawyer,” McGoldrick said, when the lawyers are representing them pro bono. McGoldrick and Haines were interviewed at a coffee shop after she had completed both of her summer jobs, and he had completed a shift at a nearby farm market.

Dave Warner is a Philadelphia-area freelance journalist who has extensive experience in newspapers, a wire service, and a website. He has been both a reporter and an editor during his career.