I am writing in response to the editorial published on Dec. 31 concerning the rights of student journalists.
It is a shame that, being journalists yourselves, you did not bother to research whether or not the state of Pennsylvania, like many other states, has any laws in place governing student expression. It does.
Section 12.9 of Pennsylvania Code 022 gives specific rights of free expression to students in general and student publications in particular. According to the code, school officials “may not censor or restrict material simply because it is critical of the school or its administration.”
School officials can remove obscene or libelous material, and edit out anything that “would cause a substantial disruption or interference with school activities.” This provision, a version of the “material and substantial disruption” test established in the Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), puts the burden on the school to justify how the student expression would have an actual disruptive effect on school activities.
For example, school officials could shut down a student demonstration calling for school reforms in which large numbers of students left their classes and congregated in the library to sing protest songs (which would materially disrupt both classroom activities and library operations), but they would not have the legal right to remove or edit an editorial in the school paper calling for the same reforms the protest aimed to bring about, as the printing of such material could not reasonably be expected to materially and substantially disrupt activities.
Obviously, in the case of Neshaminy High School, the decision to not use the term “Redskins” in the school paper does not threaten such a material and substantial disruption to school activities, and thus should be protected speech according to Pennsylvania code.
Even if this law didn’t exist, and the school newspaper fell under the more restrictive requirements of the Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988), school officials would still have to provide a valid pedagogical (read: educational) reason why they were limiting the students’ speech, a reason which I doubt exists in this case.
I would hope that a newspaper editorial staff would support the rights of student journalists to make editorial decisions for their publication. But I should expect that, whatever side that editorial staff takes, they would at least do the research that informs that opinion.