High School Administrators Hold Back Yearbooks, Magazines

With the close of another school year, several high school magazines and yearbooks around the country raised the ire of school administrators over their content and the conduct of their staff.

In Orange, Calif., high school principal S.K. Johnson confiscated copies of the Orange High School student-produced magazine, PULP, refusing to release them because he opposed the magazine’s coverage of students with tattoos. On July 1, Johnson reversed his decision, allowing the magazine to be released.

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) reported June 12 that Johnson said he thought the magazine “romanticized” tattoos in an unbalanced way, that the magazine’s cover art promoted gang life and looked like an advertisement for a tattoo parlor. The cover features a photographic illustration of a person’s back with a large tattoo of the word “PULP” written in “Old English” font, along with a panther, Orange High School’s mascot. The cover art can be viewed online at http://www.citmedialaw.org/sites/citmedialaw.org/files/PULPcover.pdf.

Johnson told the SPLC that the city of Orange has a large Hispanic population and some gang activity, and that the magazine cover with “gangster-style writing and a full-body back tattoo would send the wrong message” and contribute to the school’s reputation as a “gangster school.” Johnson also opposed the magazine’s inclusion of a list of “10 Things to do Before Graduation,” which included activities like leaving campus for lunch, cutting class to go to the beach, and sneaking a “clothing optional” swim in the school’s swimming pool, the SPLC reported.

Editor-in-Chief Lynn Lai told the SPLC that there was nothing controversial about the content of the student magazine. “All we’re trying to do is report on the daily life and general life of our students,” Lai said.

Nevertheless, Lai said the magazine staff had suggested a compromise, offering to rip out the “10 Things to do” list, which might encourage students to break school rules.

A California state law, Cal. Educ. Code 48907, requires that school officials demonstrate that a student publication is “obscene, libelous, or slanderous” or “so incites pupils as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school” in order to censor it. This is a more stringent standard than the one set out by the U. S. Supreme Court in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), which held that officials could censor a school-sponsored publication when the censorship is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

In a June 24 press release, State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) said, “the principal’s actions clearly violated state law. Administrators can not censor student press just because they do not like the content. It is completely inappropriate and illegal for the principal to confiscate the students’ publication.”

Yee reported on his Web site July 6 that Johnson reversed his decision, sending a letter to the magazine’s editors on July 1 authorizing its release. According to Yee’s Web site, Johnson wrote, “Since making my initial decision to prohibit distribution of the 2009 PULP magazine, I have sought input and advice from others whose insights and opinions may be more global than mine. I’ve re-reviewed the District Board Policy and Administrative Regulation regarding freedom of expression. In addition, interpretations of the California Education Codes 48907 and 48950 suggest that, with a compromise, the PULP 2009 magazine could be released for distribution.” Yee’s Web site reported that the editors of the magazine had already agreed to the compromise, which involved removing the “10 Things to do Before Graduation” list.

The principal at West Jordan, Utah’s Copper Hills High School decided to require parental permission for students to purchase a copy of the school’s annual literary magazine, Chasms, because it included some profanity and graphic artwork.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the magazine was supposed to go on sale during a student-organized benefit concert on Tuesday, May 19. Instead, Principal Todd Quarnberg spent a week reviewing the magazine and discussing it with student editors before allowing students to purchase a copy on the condition that they have a signature from their parents saying they were allowed to do so.

The National Scholastic Press Association has awarded Chasms two Pacemaker Awards, in 2009 and 2006, for excellence in high school journalism. In 2008 the magazine won a Gold Crown Award from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.

Quarnberg told The Salt Lake Tribune that he originally withheld the magazine because he worried student editors might not have fully realized the reaction the art and words might evoke from a conservative community. According to The Tribune, the magazine included “profanity, sexual situations and dark, grotesque art.”

“I’m very protective of my kids and the way they’re judged by the community,” Quarnberg said. “Sometimes kids publish or write things without seeing the ramifications of what it may do.”

Student editors told The Tribune that they exercised restraint producing the magazine, and were relieved Quarnberg allowed it to be released unchanged. Prose Editor Cory Bobrowski and Director of Public Relations Cody Capson said profanity was only included if editors felt it was integral to a piece, and some pieces were toned down from their original versions.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Bobrowski said.

Quarnberg said he has confidence in class adviser Lou Jessop, but he and other administrators will be more involved with the magazine’s production in the future. Quarnberg said he would not necessarily bar profanity or define what is appropriate, and he hopes to not require permission slips. “I can’t draw that line in the sand, but I know when it’s crossed,” Quarnberg said.

Meanwhile, students involved in the production of yearbooks in Illinois and Ohio faced punishment for images they snuck into their publications.

Staff members of Trevia yearbook at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., slipped a photo of a student holding a can of beer into the yearbook after the publication’s adviser had reviewed and approved the pages, the SPLC reported June 16.

School spokeswoman Laura Blair told the SPLC the students responsible accessed a computer server containing the yearbook’s pages after the adviser reviewed them, but before the pages were “locked.” Blair would not elaborate on the punishment because she said it is a student disciplinary matter. The student holding the beer in the photo was not one of the students responsible for adding the photo, Blair added.

The SPLC reported that the school ordered stickers to cover the unauthorized photo in the yearbooks, some of which had already been distributed. The school is also changing its procedure for sending the yearbook to press, Blair said.

In Ohio, the artist who created the cover of Cleveland’s Shaker Heights High School yearbook, Gristmill, issued a written apology, paid the school compensation, and was made to clean the school’s art room after he admitted to hiding an offensive phrase in the book’s cover artwork.

The SPLC reported June 18 that Gristmill’s cover featured a hand-drawn image of a crowd of “red raiders” – the school’s Trojan-like mascot. When flipped upside down, the phrase “Fuck All Y’All” can be found hidden within a sea of red ink. The cover art can be viewed online at http://www.splc.org/pdf/Gristmillcover.pdf.

School spokeswoman Peggy Caldwell told the SPLC that Shaker Heights Principal Michael Griffith learned of the image through a teacher who had been shown the hidden message by friends of the artist. At that point, about half of the yearbooks had already been distributed.

Griffith halted the distribution of the yearbooks, issued a letter to parents explaining the circumstances, and directed an art teacher and two students to alter the remaining books in order to “camouflage the offensive language.”

Caldwell said the yearbook’s adviser and editors, who commissioned the cover artwork, could not be faulted for the inclusion of the offensive language because “There is no way the adviser or the editors could have seen the message in there.”

Griffith’s letter to parents also included an apology from the student, who officials declined to identify. “I cannot begin to explain the miserable feeling I brought upon myself, when I betrayed the trust of all of you. I apologize for offending anyone and everyone,” the student wrote. “It is unfortunate that I did not recognize the big responsibility and honor given to me when asked to design the cover of the Shaker Heights yearbook.”

In addition to the apology, the SPLC reported that the student was forced to pay the school compensation for the corrections made to the undistributed yearbooks and to clean the school’s art room for one week. Caldwell said, “the consequences fit the circumstances, and he was remorseful.”

– Patrick File

Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor



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This page contains a single entry by cla published on October 2, 2009 10:45 AM.

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