Principal withholds student magazine because of tattoo story, cover

CALIFORNIA -- A California principal has confiscated copies of a student magazine, claiming its cover image promotes gang life and telling 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 annual student-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-Chief Lynn Lai. District administrators are backing his decision.

"I really do feel that they're trying to suppress us when all we're trying to do is report on the daily life and general life of our students," Lai said.

The issue featured a story on students with tattoos, including a graphic illustration on the cover depicting someone's back with a tattoo of the publication's name and image of a panther, the school mascot. Johnson told the students he felt the cover could promote gang life and encourage some to get tattooed, his main reasons for censoring the magazine.

Lai said the cover was dedicated to "tattoo mania" because the story was the most interesting and important. In the article, students discussed their tattoos;all of the students consented to having their name and photos used.

"The article, I felt, romanticized tattoos and since the majority of our student body is under 18 -- the legal age for getting tattoos -- I felt that was not appropriate to not give the other side of the story that tattoos are forever and while it may be removed, it's a painful process," Johnson said.

Johnson also told the PULP staff the cover's "Old English" font made the publication look like a gang magazine or an advertisement for a tattoo parlor.

In 1988, the Supreme Court decided in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that high school administrators could censor school-sponsored newspapers only when they can show that it is "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical [educational] concerns."

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

"I don't envision rioting because students suddenly realize their tattoos are permanent," Goldstein said. "No where in this country is a school able to censor because they just don't feel like the students in the story are making the right life decisions."

Johnson noted several times that their community has a large Hispanic population and a couple of gangs. An illustration with "gangster-style writing and a full-body back tattoo would send the wrong message" and cement Orange High School's reputation as a "gangster school."

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

"We don't see it that way," she said. "We just see it as being there to go into the whole theme of tattoos."

Beyond the cover, Johnson also objected to a list of ten things students should do before graduating. This list included activities like leaving campus for lunch, cutting class to go to the beach, and sneaking a swim in the school's pool --"clothing optional."

Lai said the PULP staff understood Johnson's concern with that content, and offered a compromise. They would rip out those pages, in turn sacrificing the table of contents and another article, if they could distribute the magazine.

"That, we agreed with our principal, fell into the grey area of the codes as encouraging students to break school rules, which is why we offered the compromise 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 with the cover and the tattoo article.

Some of the tattoos, Johnson noted, were not "like a single, tiny butterfly or a small tattoo; they were major tattoos that covered a great portion of the a body part, including the entire two shoulders of a young lady."

Lai said this is the first time PULP has been censored, mainly because Johnson does not ordinarily have access to the copies before distribution. This year, they had been left in the driver's education office where Johnson discovered them.

In the past, PULP has tackled controversial issues facing students' lives. Last year, they featured a story on teen pregnancy. The year 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 the school's health office, but the story fell through.

While Johnson acknowledged there was "some great journalism" in the latest issue of PULP, he said writing about tattoos trumps that. He asked the staff to either affix an addendum to the article noting that tattoos are permanent choices, or rewrite the story to convey that message.

"They referred to tattooing as a fad, but a tattoo lasts forever," he said. "It may be a fad but those kids need to hear a little bit more."

At this point, Goldstein said the magazine's staff could pursue legal action. They are still being censored, he added, because the PULP copies are still in Johnson's possession.

Lai said her principal's recent actions are censorship. She noted she has knowledge of her rights as a student journalist, which she shared with Johnson.

"The final product of our magazine this year had absolutely nothing controversial in it," Lai said.

By Brian Stewart, SPLC staff writer

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