Principal withholds student magazine because of tattoo story, cover

CALIFORNIA — A California principal has confiscatedcopies of a student magazine, claiming its cover image promotes gang life andtelling its staff they cannot distribute the issue.

When S.K. Johnson, principal of Orange High School in Orange, Calif.,stumbled upon issues of PULP — the school’s annualstudent-produced magazine — before they were distributed to students,he confiscated nearly all 300 copies.

Johnson has yet to return the magazines, said PULP Editor-in-ChiefLynn Lai. District administrators are backing his decision.

“I really do feel that they’re trying to suppress us when allwe’re trying to do is report on the daily life and general life of ourstudents,” Lai said.

The issue featured a story on students with tattoos, including a graphicillustration on the cover depicting someone’s back with a tattoo of thepublication’s name and image of a panther, the school mascot. Johnson toldthe students he felt the cover could promote gang life and encourage some to gettattooed, his main reasons for censoring the magazine.

Lai said the cover was dedicated to “tattoo mania” because thestory was the most interesting and important. In the article, students discussedtheir tattoos;all of the students consented to having their name andphotos used.

“The article, I felt, romanticized tattoos and since the majority ofour student body is under 18 — the legal age for getting tattoos — I felt that was not appropriate to not give the other side of thestory that tattoos are forever and while it may be removed, it’s a painfulprocess,” Johnson said.

Johnson also told the PULP staff the cover’s “OldEnglish” font made the publication look like a gang magazine or anadvertisement for a tattoo parlor.

In 1988, the Supreme Court decided in Hazelwood School District v.Kuhlmeier that high school administrators could censor school-sponsorednewspapers only when they can show that it is “reasonably related tolegitimate pedagogical [educational] concerns.”

But in California, officials must have more than an educational concern tocensor. State law requires that administrators show the story is illegal or willcause a physical disruption to school, said Adam Goldstein, attorney advocatefor the Student Press Law Center.

“I don’t envision rioting because students suddenly realizetheir tattoos are permanent,” Goldstein said. “No where in thiscountry is a school able to censor because they just don’t feel like thestudents in the story are making the right life decisions.”

Johnson noted several times that their community has a large Hispanicpopulation and a couple of gangs. An illustration with “gangster-stylewriting and a full-body back tattoo would send the wrong message” andcement Orange High School’s reputation as a “gangsterschool.”

But Lai said she does not think the cover depicts gang activity.

“We don’t see it that way,” she said. “We just seeit as being there to go into the whole theme of tattoos.”

Beyond the cover, Johnson also objected to a list of ten things studentsshould do before graduating. This list included activities like leaving campusfor lunch, cutting class to go to the beach, and sneaking a swim in theschool’s pool –“clothing optional.”

Lai said the PULP staff understood Johnson’s concern with thatcontent, and offered a compromise. They would rip out those pages, in turnsacrificing the table of contents and another article, if they could distributethe magazine.

“That, we agreed with our principal, fell into the grey area of thecodes as encouraging students to break school rules, which is why we offered thecompromise to remove the pages,” she said.

But Johnson — who said district administrators backed him — told them the compromise was not enough. The problem was still withthe cover and the tattoo article.

Some of the tattoos, Johnson noted, were not “like a single, tinybutterfly or a small tattoo; they were major tattoos that covered a greatportion of the a body part, including the entire two shoulders of a younglady.”

Lai said this is the first time PULP has been censored, mainlybecause Johnson does not ordinarily have access to the copies beforedistribution. This year, they had been left in the driver’s educationoffice where Johnson discovered them.

In the past, PULP has tackled controversial issues facingstudents’ lives. Last year, they featured a story on teen pregnancy. Theyear before that, a story about teen usage of alcohol and drugs was their focus.And this issue, they hoped to tackle the distribution of condoms in theschool’s health office, but the story fell through.

While Johnson acknowledged there was “some great journalism” inthe latest issue of PULP, he said writing about tattoos trumps that. Heasked the staff to either affix an addendum to the article noting that tattoosare permanent choices, or rewrite the story to convey that message.

“They referred to tattooing as a fad, but a tattoo lastsforever,” he said. “It may be a fad but those kids need to hear alittle bit more.”

At this point, Goldstein said the magazine’s staff could pursue legalaction. They are still being censored, he added, because the PULP copiesare still in Johnson’s possession.

Lai said her principal’s recent actions are censorship. She noted shehas knowledge of her rights as a student journalist, which she shared withJohnson.

“The final product of our magazine this year had absolutely nothingcontroversial in it,” Lai said.

By Brian Stewart, SPLC staff writer