Administrators confiscate Calif. literary magazine, attach warning label

CALIFORNIA — Administrators at Chaffey College have confiscated and attached a warning label to copies of a literary magazine produced by students at the school, saying that the magazine’s content is graphic and violent.

It remains unclear exactly which portions of The Chaffey Review incited the administration to act. Angela Bartlett, a professor at the school, said administrators might have found a poem titled “Patchwork” to be offensive because it references gunshots.

The piece, by Eleanora Schirano, ends with the lines, “Right before he pulled the trigger/Bang Bang Bang.”

The magazine, founded in 2008, is the product of the school’s Literary Magazine Production class and contains works produced by both students and professionals. Students in the class are responsible for the “editing, production, marketing and layout” of each edition, according to the magazine’s website.

In January, shortly after the magazine was distributed, administrators recalled the magazines from the school’s bookstore, Bartlett said. They were returned to the shelves, but with warning labels that read: “The Chaffey College Review contains material that is graphic and violent. While the College wishes to express its sincere support of and condolences to the victims and the families of recent school violence, it has a legal and ethical responsibility to uphold the First Amendment rights of its students. If you believe that this content would be upsetting to you, please do not read.”

The magazine’s adviser, Michelle Dowd, was asked to retrieve copies she had already distributed to faculty so they could be labeled as well, Bartlett said. Dowd declined to comment.

Multiple attempts to reach Chaffey administrators were unsuccessful. Dean Michael Dinielli referred all questions to a school spokeswoman, who could not be reached.

Bartlett said the label is a non sequitur that sends the message that the students support gun violence. Further, failing to obtain permission before labeling the magazine infringes on the students’ rights, she said.

Because free expression laws are so protective in California, college administrators cannot take this kind of action against student publications, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

California’s community college free expression law states that colleges must have rules regarding free expression, but that those rules “shall not prohibit the right of students to exercise free expression including … the distribution of printed materials.”

“[Students] have both the right to choose their own content and the right not to be forced to adopt the speech of the institution,” LoMonte said.

Senior Editor Melissa Lewis said her staff sent administrators a petition Monday expressing their disagreement with the label’s wording and their opinion that the label was offensive to the families in Connecticut as well as to the authors and artists published in the magazine.

Lewis said none of the magazine’s content was related to school shootings.

“Our journal has nothing to do with that,” Lewis said. “We sent it down to the print shop the day that that [the Connecticut shooting] happened. Everything in it was created before that even happened. So it has nothing to do with school shootings or anything of the sort.”

Though some of the content can be seen as offensive, Lewis said the students’ decisions about what to publish were made thoughtfully, considering the magazine’s theme and how the items would work together. For this volume, the theme was “Innocence in Experience.”

“There is some offensive art in this book, which we knew going in,” Lewis said. “We didn’t just put it in there to be offensive. It’s thought-provoking.”

Lewis said she personally feels there should be no warning label on the magazine, but in a vote Monday, about half the class felt they should try to compromise with administrators.

In the petition sent to administrators Monday, the magazine staff said that if a warning label is necessary, they want to be involved in creating it.

Lewis said staff members have come up with a new design for an insert or bookmark-style label letting readers know that the magazine has mature content. It could be used for the next order of magazines.

The students want to meet with administrators in person but haven’t been able to, Lewis said.

“I think the way the administration has handled their personal issues with the book has been the wrong way to handle it almost every single step of the way because they have not talked to us at all, and they should be talking with us directly as students,” Lewis said.

Lewis said she believes the administration’s actions will “play on [her staff’s] thoughts” as they work to put together the next volume of The Chaffey Review. Its theme is “War and Peace.”

“I think it’s going to affect us even if we don’t want it to,” Lewis said. “We’re going to try to make the decisions the way we always have.”

Some faculty are concerned the class might be dropped by administrators, Bartlett said.

The class cannot be legally dropped as retaliation over this situation, LoMonte said.

“If they were to terminate the class in connection with a disagreement over editorial content, they would be sued six different ways,” LoMonte said.

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.