Tassle hassle: Editor defeats principal, graduates on time after ad controversy

CALIFORNIA — A high school newspaper editor’s fight to attend her graduation ceremony ended peacefully this spring, after an allegedly anti-Semitic ad parody she put together for the school paper nearly cost her her cap and gown.

The incident began when editor Holly Asuncion decided to fill two pages of the school’s newspaper, The Norseman, with a parody of an ad she had seen in the school yearbook.

The original two-page yearbook ad was composed by yearbook editor Anna Salusky’s mother and featured a picture of Salusky in her cap and gown on one page, with a message on the other. The message listed the names of family and friends, places Salusky has visited and significant moments in her life, including her Bat Mitzvah.

Asuncion’s parody used a Unabomber theme and had a mock photo of a person dressed like the Unabomber, but wearing a cap and gown. It was not the picture, however, that the principal and Salusky’s family found offensive.

Principal Allen Layne claimed that a font used in the parody was the same font used by the Nazis during World War II. The parody made mention of the Stevie Wonder song, “Higher Ground,” a phrase Layne claimed referred to the Jewish term for death. Finally, Layne said the name “ma kettle,” which appeared randomly in the parody, referred to the actress who played Ma Kettle in the “Ma and Pa Kettle” movie series, who he claimed was of Jewish heritage. Asuncion said a web page about the actress identified her as a minister’s daughter.

Asuncion denied all of the charges, saying Layne had to explain to her the meanings of the some of the things she supposedly intended to be anti-Semitic. She maintained that the ad was meant as a harmless joke.

After the 2,600 copies of the paper were distributed, Layne called Asuncion into his office and told her to leave the building or risk being suspended. He said the suspension was meant to protect her personal safety. He also encouraged her to write letters of apology to Salusky and to the Downey Jewish community and threatened that she might not be allowed to attend graduation ceremonies.

That threat prompted Asuncion to contact the Student Press Law Center, who cited the California student free expression law to her and referred her to Los Angeles attorney Dennis Hernandez.

Asuncion spent the day of her evening graduation ceremony in negotiations with the school. Earlier in the day she filed suit against Layne, the superintendent, the school district and the board of education, claiming her First Amendment rights were violated by not being allowed to attend the graduation. Eventually, Asuncion agreed to drop the suit in exchange for being allowed into the ceremony. Asuncion said she is obviously glad she graduated, but afterwards has wondered if she should have pushed the situation further. She said she now just hopes to leave the incident in the past.

Fall 1996, reports