What do you call someone who wanders the hallways of a large suburban high school with a shopping cart, frantically scooping up newly printed newspapers and confiscating them so no one can read them...all because that newspaper had a editor's note and a white box where it declined to publish a letter to the editor that contained a word that many people, including the student editors of the paper, consider to be racist and offensive?
You might think that man with a shopping cart is a raving lunatic who wandered in off the streets.
Or it could just be Neshaminy High School principal Robert McGee.
This bizarre confiscation of newspapers is the latest twist in a bizarro-world freedom-of-the-press controversy in the Bucks County school, where earlier this year student editors of the wonderfully named Playwickian newspaper voted to stop using the name of the sports mascot -- the same racially offensive word that inexplicably remains the name of Washington's NFL franchise. That's when all hell broke lose. School officials led by McGee, ordered the young editors and reporters to use this "R-word" -- or else.
But thankfully, there's a difference between the brave student journalists of Neshaminy and the highly paid but cowardly journalists of the Beltway who routinely kowtow to the whims of government authority. In the best spirit of a free and an independent press, they've retained a lawyer and fought for their 1st Amendment rights.
What happened next? Since the Bucks County newspapers have a hard paywall (despite what some of my colleagues think, paywalls don't save journalism, they just mean you get ignored) I'm going to ignore them and turn to my friend and -- major irony alert -- my one-time high school newspaper editor (circa1975) Keith Olbermann of ESPN to explain:
Last week, the paper received a letter to the editor from a student — the son of a School Board member — who said refusing to use the name was a violation of **his** First Amendment rights. The letter included the word and, using the Associated Press style book instructions for how to print an obscene or offensive word, they included the capital letter "R" and then seven dashes for the remaining letters.
Editors say in a meeting with Principal Robert McGee and others, they were told they had to print the letter with the word spelled out, or the paper wouldn't be published.
The editors cut out the middle man and talked to — the printers.
The letter was removed outright and replaced by an editor's note explaining the situation.
When copies of the newspaper arrived at the school Friday, staffers began to handle it out, only to find Principal McGee following them and **confiscating** as many copies as he could grab. One student said they saw McGee with a **cart** full of newspapers.
There was one last bizarre twist: The next day, for commencement ceremonies, students returned with copies of the paper with the editors'-note-and-white-box and were able to distribute copies after all. As Olbermann said in his commentary, "I'm guessing somebody may have also explained the 1st Amendment, which protects you only from the **government** punishing you for free speech, and that if anybody in this equation is the government — it'd be the local school board."
So...happy ending? Yes and no. The Neshaminy community should be ashamed of its principal, Robert McGee, for acting like a third-rate apparatchick in a totalitarian Communist regime. For four years, teachers in Neshaminy have striven to teach and encourage good citizenship -- including not just teaching about about the Bill of Rights but how to exercise those rights in our everyday life. And yet here are government authorities, insisting that young citizens know that they indeed have the authority to tell them what they can say and how they must say it. They are indeed authoritarians. The students who are fighting the administration -- along with their faculity adviser -- are the heroes in this story.
I've heard this controversy debated on the radio, and so I've heard the absurd Alice-in-Wonderland argument that somehow it's the students who are denying 1st Amendment rights to those who want to continue to use the offensive mascot name. That's ridiculous on both counts. On one hand, no one at the paper is preventing any student or fan from uttering the R-word, from screaming it in the stands or in the hallways (nor would they have the authority to do such a thing). The editors of the Playwickian still cover the teams and their athletes, are not even pushing to change the mascot, and were willing to publish the letter criticizing them, just with letters dashed out as in proper AP style.
On the other hand, there is simply no justification to compel a publication to use a term that its editors reasonably deem offensive. None. If you truly beleive that a newspaper -- like the Daily News, for example -- has some obligation to publish every racist or hate-speech letter that comes over its transom, including vile and offensive words, I'd love to hear that argument.
The irony that kills me about this situation is that the people I've heard complaining on the radio about these students are the EXACT same people I see in the comments section of Attytood -- complaining about how were raising young people to look to government for all the answers, and not to think for themselves. And so here we have the students of Neshaminy's Playwickian acting just as the Founding Fathers envisioned, using the power of the printing press to question unchecked authority. And yet right below this, you'll probably see folks lining up to attack the U.S. Constitution.
I'll grab the popcorn.