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The Playwickian v. Neshaminy School Board:
What is freedom of the student press
and how does a staff make and defend editorial decisions?
A lesson in freedom


The Playwickian vs. Neshaminy School Board – What is freedom of the student press and how does a staff make and defend editorial decisions?
by Cindi Hyatt
This lesson is intended to promote discussion of what the First Amendment defines as free speech and press.  Students need to recognize that the First Amendment is intended to protect but also intended to encourage “debate on public issues … [and should be] … uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” according to Justice William Brennan’s opinion in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964).

One of these debates currently in discussion concerns the battle between the Neshaminy School District and the student newspaper, The Playwickian, over the use of the word “Redskin.”

Students will read three primary documents, followed by discussion of key questions. After this lesson, students should have a deeper understanding of the First Amendment and the complexities of freedom of the press as it relates to student journalism. They should also be aware of how and why they make their own editorial decisions in their student run media.

Background expectations:  Students should have a basic understanding of Tinker, Bethel, Morse ( and Hazelwood cases ( Also a handout of the SPLC’s diagram:  ( Students should be familiar with the language of the First Amendment and the five freedoms (speech, religion, assembly, petition, press).

Key questions to consider:
• Did the principal and school board meet a standard of reasonableness when they chose to restrict school-sponsored expression?
• Can a government or authority force the students to take this position (compel speech)?  In other words, should the school district be able to force the student editors to print a term they find offensive?
• Is the restriction of the term “Redskin” infringe upon the rights of other students’ First Amendment rights, preventing the free flow of discourse?
• How has the Playwickian editorial staff exercised its First Amendment rights as student press?
• How would your staff handle a similar situation?
• Would your staff adopt a policy against using the term redskin for the NFL team Washington Redskins? What would that policy look like? (For further reading on this, please click here.)


• Students will read texts that address complex First Amendment issues
• Students will recognize that the First Amendment is open to interpretation
• Students will identify and discuss key points regarding free speech
• Students will recognize both points of view
• Students will discuss how they make editorial decisions
• Students will identify if their publication is protected under the Tinker standard.
• Students will determine if their publication is a public forum
• Students will consider drafting a public policy or an addition to an existing policy for publication that will help serve as protection if any future censorship issues arise with administration.

Common Core State Standards
Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.
Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.
Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives; synthesize comments, claims, and evidence made on all sides of an issue; resolve contradictions when possible; and determine what additional information or research is required to deepen the investigation or complete the task.

135 minutes (three 45-minute lessons)
Days One and Two – Understanding the Neshaminy issue and its connection to the First Amendment’s freedom of the press.
Day Three – Reflecting upon student decision making process regarding freedom as student press and determining if their publication is a public forum.

Materials / resources
Article 1
: Playwickian editorial explaining the decision to stop using the word “Redskin”
Article 2: Neshaminy officials could use some schooling
Article 3: Freedom of press belongs to school, not student editors

Lesson step-by-step

Day One
1. Introduction — 5 minutes
Teacher should post or project the First Amendment. Ask students to read through it. What does it mean?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

2. Brainstorm case review — 5 minutes
Ask students to help brainstorm a list of cases in which the First Amendment has been challenged. Write the cases on the board.

If students have not learned the cases, teacher should provide a brief overview of each.
Ask students how the First Amendment has been challenged in student journalism cases.

3. Large group discussion — 15 minutes
Class should discuss how the First Amendment has been challenged in each of these cases.

4. Reading — 10 minutes
Teacher should pass out the handout on the background of the Neshaminy case.

5. Reporting on reading — 10 minutes
Teacher should ask students to tell you what happened in the Neshaminy case.

Day 2
1. Review — 5 minutes
Ask students to debrief of the specifics of the Neshaminy case.  Ask them what links can be made between this one and the cases discussed during the last class.

2. Reading — 15 minutes
Students should have three primary texts about the Neshaminy case. Ask them to make notes about what they think is important while reading. Tell them they will be working through questions when finished.

Pass out the following:
• The actual editorial published in The Playwickian October 2013
• An opinion piece by Karen Heller, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist (in favor of the students)
• An editorial from the Union Bulletin in Walla Walla Washington (supporting the administration)

5. Pair work — 15 minutes
Students should answer questions from the handout in pairs.

Handout on Playwickian editorial.
Handout on Inquirer column.
Handout on Walla Walla editorial.

6. Small group discussion — 10 minutes
Students pairs should join another pair to create groups of four. Then, the group should discuss the answers to the worksheet in small groups. Ask them to turn in one sheet per group of four.

Day 3
1. Review — 5 minutes

Teacher should pass out the sheets the students turned in during the last class. Ask students to rejoin the groups from the previous class and review their answers.

2. Link to student publications — 10 minutes
Students will determine which standard – Tinker or Hazelwood – applies to their publication. They may have to look up state school code to determine this.

3. Checklist evaluation — 10 minutes

In the group of four, students should fill out the checklist to help guide them in discussing how they make decisions as an editorial board and about their responsibilities to their school and community.

4. Debrief — 10 minutes
Teacher should ask students what they found and discuss.

5. Reflection — 5 minutes
Teacher should ask students to discuss how they can make ethical and responsible decisions as a staff regarding controversial or sensitive issues. What examples can each group find?

6. Action — 5 minutes
Teacher should ask students if their policy needs reframing. If so, how would they go about doing so? Students should consider publishing a public policy in their publication. Here is one from Conestoga High in Pennsylvania.

Students could further explore this topic by looking at the link between the Neshaminy situation and the Washington Post refusal to mention “Redskins” on its op ed pages

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