OC high school students claim principal censored magazine

Orange High School students Angela Kapiloff and Lynn Lai allege the school's principal unlawfully censored their magazine.
Orange High School students Angela Kapiloff and Lynn Lai allege the school's principal unlawfully censored their magazine. Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

Summer school students at Orange High School are still reeling over what they call censorship just before the school year ended. The journalism students are challenging the principal, who confiscated 300 copies of their annual magazine. KPCC’s Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports on the controversy.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: The cover story of Pulp, Orange High School’s annual glossy student magazine, investigated a Christian cross tattoo trend among 18-year-olds. Editor-in-chief Lynn Lai described what it looks like.

Lynn Lai:The cover shows the back of a male, with a tattoo that has been photoshopped onto it. The tattoo contains the letters OHS for our school and the word Pulp, for the title of our magazine in Old English writing. The tattoo also features the head of a panther, which is our school mascot, as well as leaves and roses.

Guzman-Lopez: Lai, a journalism student who volunteers for the campus service group and her Catholic parish, said the principal was morally opposed to the image. He confiscated almost every copy of the magazine.

Lai: His last statement concerning the Pulp issue, as well as the cover, was that he felt it promoted gang life and that it looked like it could be the prison tattoo of basically a gang member who’s in prison for doing whatever crime.

Guzman-Lopez: ... and who couldn’t afford a good prison tattoo.

Principal SK Johnson and Orange Unified school officials were not available for comment. Johnson told the Orange County Register that his job is to uphold his school’s image – and that the magazine cover reflected poorly on Orange High. Eleventh grader Angela Kapiloff, who designed the cover, said the principal’s comments puzzled her.

Angela Kapiloff: This is our least controversial magazine that we’ve ever written. Last year our feature story was about teen pregnancy and the year before that it was about how teenagers are getting involved in sex and drugs and partying.

Guzman-Lopez: When students invoked state student press protections, Lai said the principal took issue with an article in the magazine that he said suggested students should skip school and skinny dip in the swimming pool. Lai said they offered to rip out that page. The principal said no. That meant few students saw an issue that cost $2,000 to publish.

The dust-up over Pulp has extended well beyond the home of the Panthers.

Leland Yee: Mr. Johnson, the principal of Orange High School, should never have confiscated those student publication, student magazine.

Guzman-Lopez: Bay Area State Senator Leland Yee sponsored a bill to protect student journalists’ free speech rights.

Yee: It is a little disappointing that an administrator, someone that we hold in high esteem, does not understand the first amendment, nor does he understand state law.

Guzman-Lopez: Yee said the student magazine doesn’t include anything obscene or libelous. Neither does it advocate breaking school rules or laws. That gives it the same protections of any publication in the country.

Yee said he’s ready to support a legal defense fund, but he hopes the principal and students can work out a compromise. The students say it’s too late to distribute the magazine. They just don’t want to face similar pressure from the school administration next year.

The Student Press Law Center in Virginia has been advising the Orange High School journalism students. The non-profit’s director, Frank LoMonte, said he gets similar calls almost every day.

Frank LoMonte: They don’t place a very high premium or a very high value on student expression and their priority tilts more toward what gets them through the day without a member of the community or a parent calling their telephone or complaining.

Guzman-Lopez: LoMonte said incidents like these can make students cynical about the value of a free press – or it can energize them to carry their fight as far as they can.

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Note: Less than two weeks after Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) – the author of several laws to protect student speech and press rights – brought public attention to a California high school principal who had confiscated copies of a student magazine, the administrator has announced he will now release the publications. [ read the press release from Senator Leland Yee ]

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