Wisconsin high school orders students to submit racy magazine for review

Thursday, May 24, 2001

The most recent issue of the Inkblot, the student magazine of Port Washington High School in Wisconsin, disturbed principal Stephanie Luther with an image of a cartoon character holding a bomb, a poem titled “Porn Star” and an illustration of a dog with a female student’s name on the collar.

Enough so that Luther decided that she would begin reviewing the magazine before it hit the press.

That leaves Ellie Azoff, co-editor of the Inkblot, conflicted.

She worries about disobeying the principal, particularly if that could lead to one of her favorite teachers losing her position as an adviser to the magazine.

But on the other hand, the Inkblot, Azoff believes, has been an incredible outlet for students for more than a decade. In the wake of the principal’s decision, many classmates have told her as much.

“They may not be the best poets in the world, but it means something to them to be published,” Azoff said. “If we start censoring it, and make it reflect what the school believes, the magazine will be void of any importance or meaning.”

But she and co-editor Mike Hernandez know they don’t have much power, considering they edit a high school magazine.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in its landmark decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, determined that school officials possess considerable power to control such publications provided they show a legitimate educational purpose for doing so.

But the court also said that if such publications had already been allowed to operate as a “public forum” for students, school officials would have a more difficult time imposing prior review.

Azoff said Inkblot editors had never been asked to submit the magazine for review in its nearly 15-year history.

“The Inkblot was made to be a forum of expression for students so they can express how they feel and show other students how they can relate to them,” Azoff said in a telephone interview. “We don’t really reject much, but we do reject things if they are really vulgar or something.”

Hernandez said: “I was pretty surprised because she’s been the third principal at this school since I’ve been here. And none had a problem with the Inkblot.”

Neither Luther nor other school officials returned repeated calls for comment about the Inkblot.

But to the Inkblot editors, school officials cited several problems with the spring issue: a cartoon featuring a character holding a bomb with a lit fuse; writings that discussed sex and included language administrators considered inappropriate; the use of a gang symbol for the Latin Kings.

And then there was a poem about two male high school students upset that their friend began spending more time with his girlfriend. A picture accompanying the poem depicted a boy walking a dog with the name of a sophomore girl on the collar.

Azoff said the girl’s name wasn’t legible even on the original cartoon. But she said the Inkblot staff apologized to the student anyway. She said she still would have run the cartoon but would have changed the name.

Azoff and Hernandez also defended the cartoon that pictured the lit bomb, noting that the character holding it was the Joker, a villain in the Batman comic book known for using confetti bombs, not real ones.

“If you could see it, you would know it right away,” Azoff said. “It’s almost silly for someone to make it bigger than that.”

As for the language, the students say the Inkblot has a tradition of being somewhat dark and racy, but not vulgar. And as for the Latin Kings symbol, they said they didn’t know it was a gang emblem.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., said he hadn’t reviewed the Inkblot but said he wasn’t surprised to hear about administrators’ reaction to the magazine’s content.

“We have seen, this spring, a number of pretty major censorship incidents at schools that have really strong student media, places where you didn’t think this would happen,” Goodman said in a telephone interview.

He wouldn’t describe the recent rash of incidents as a growing trend … at least not yet. But he noted that quite a few students resort to the Internet to publish their work.

Earlier this month, students at Hinsdale Central High School near Chicago posted the April 22 issue of the Devil’s Advocate on the Internet after school officials censored, then destroyed, that edition of the newspaper. The principal objected to graphics featuring armed students and bullet-ridden school crossing signs and to a story headlined “Getting a gun.”

For Azoff and Hernandez, both seniors, the thought of submitting the magazine to their principal before publication clouds their feelings for their last issue of the Inkblot.

“We’re trying our best to keep how students feel in the issue, keep it low key and still have an edge,” Azoff said. “We want the Inkblot, but we don’t want it to continue under false pretenses.”

Hernandez said any threats of censorship might force the Inkblot to go underground in the future and perhaps be published off campus.

“If it comes down to it, we can’t let the censorship go on,” he said.

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