Calif. principal withholds school magazine over tattoo, article

By Danny Hodges
First Amendment Center Online intern

A student magazine at a California high school was recently prohibited from circulating for featuring a picture of a man with a tattooed back on the cover and an article the principal deemed inappropriate.

Orange High School Principal S.K. Johnson pulled PULP, the advanced journalism class’s year-end project, saying the tattoo was “gang-looking.”

"It was not an easy decision, but we have an image of our school that I want to uphold,” he told the Orange County Register. “I don't think that (cover) was promoting what we want to promote at our school."

The featured article covered the popularity of tattoos by quoting and showing various members of the student body who had tattoos. The Register reported that the cover photo illustration was “a computer-enhanced image of a man's back tattooed with Old English letters and a picture of the school's mascot, a panther.”

Lynn Lai, an Orange High student and editor in chief of PULP, told the newspaper that the story did not discuss gang tattoos. She also told the Student Press Law Center, "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."

Student papers are more vulnerable to censorship since the 1988 Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier established that school officials have the legal capacity to censor student publications if they have a valid educational reason for doing so. However, California has its own, more-protective laws regarding student publications. State law declares that in addition to the standard against slander, libel and obscenity, a publication must either create a “clear and present danger” for student law-breaking or incite “substantial disruption” to school operations before it can be censored.

Johnson also took issue with an article detailing 10 things students should do before graduating, as it suggested students skip class and swim in the school pool, “clothing optional.” However, when PULP editors offered to rip the questionable article from the magazine before its distribution, Johnson still cited the cover and corresponding story as unsuited for the school environment.

PULP had never been censored before, possibly because other school officials don’t typically see the final product before school wide distribution. It was chance that the magazine had been left in the driver’s education office before its dispersal, where Johnson saw it and decided to lock up all 300 copies in his office closet.

While all copies of the publication remain in the principal’s possession, he recently attempted to compromise with the students over distribution. According to the Register, Johnson offered to allow the magazine to be distributed in the fall on the conditions that the controversial to-do list be removed and that he be more involved in the magazine’s production.

Lai told the newspaper that she had not decided whether she would accept the offer, expressing hesitation at having Johnson more involved with the magazine.

Lai told the Register that she would “ask him to clarify his intent for next year’s journalism class.”

Johnson said he wanted to prevent a repeat of the current situation.