Jun 30, 2009, 10:21AM

Oh no, that just won't do

A high school principal has confiscated all printed issues of a senior journalism project, the OHS Pulp magazine, for it's "gang-looking" cover art.

Few people have seen the eye-catching magazine cover designed by students at Orange High School, with its stark image of a man's back tattooed with the title – "OHS Pulp" – in Old English script.That's because almost every copy of the student magazine is locked away in the office of Principal SK Johnson. He confiscated the magazine after deciding the tattoo on the cover was "gang-looking" and an article inside was inappropriate.His action has drawn protest not just from the students who put together the magazine, but also from student-press advocates across the country. They say Johnson took a big step over a legal line drawn clearly by California's constitution."It was not an easy decision," Johnson said. "But we have an image of our school that I want to uphold. I don't think that (cover) was promoting what we want to promote at our school."Students in an advanced journalism class put together Pulp magazine as an end-of-the-year project. The cover story reported that a number of seniors had gotten tattoos and explored the symbolism behind some of the inked images, editor-in-chief Lynn Lai said. It was titled, "Tattoo Mania."The front cover illustrated the story with a computer-enhanced image of a man's back tattooed with Old English letters and a picture of the school's mascot, a panther.The story had nothing to do with gang tattoos, Lai said. But Johnson, the principal, said the cover image "looked like it was a gang tattoo." He said a custodian stopped him in the hall as he walked with a copy of the magazine and asked: "Oh, you're reading a gang-tattoo magazine, huh?"Johnson also took issue with the magazine's list of 10 things seniors should do before they graduate. It included cutting school to go to the beach and sneaking in a swim at the school pool – "clothing optional."Lai said students offered to rip out the pages with the Top Ten list if Johnson would allow them to distribute the rest of the magazine. He refused and confiscated almost all of the 300 printed copies of the magazine; student staff members held onto a few."We just want our rights to be recognized as student journalists," said Lai, 17, who will be a senior next year.California has the strongest set of laws protecting student speech and student publications in the nation, said Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center.State law allows school administrators to restrict student speech that is obscene, libelous or slanderous. They can also prohibit material that creates a "clear and present danger" of inciting students to break the law, violate school regulations, or cause "substantial disruption" of school operations.That may apply to the Top Ten list, with its suggestions to skinny dip and skip school. But LoMonte said a judge might consider the list to be nothing more than satire, and therefore no real threat to school operations.The tattoo cover and story appear to be "well within the protection" of California law, LoMonte said. The magazine, he said, was "not promoting tattooing any more than informing people about a rash of fires is promoting arson."The Student Press Law Center has spotlighted the case on its Web site. So has the National Coalition Against Censorship, the California First Amendment Coalition and the Citizen Media Law Project."It really is sort of sad that (school administrators) are passing up such a valuable opportunity to teach students about the consequences of action and really work through a learning opportunity," said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, "rather than just lowering the boom."The student editors of Pulp have not taken legal action over their confiscated magazine, although Lai said that's still available as an option. Johnson, the principal, said he has not decided what to do with the magazines that are still stacked in his office: "I haven't given it too much thought."


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