Come and take it: a Battle Between First and Second Amendments at South Pasadena High School
SOUTH PASADENA, Calif. — Charles Li anchors like a matador ready to smite a half-ton Spanish Fighting Bull. However, his weapon of choice is not a blade made of razor-thin steel. And his crusade continues to take aim at a vastly different foe.
The stony-faced 17-year-old clutches a black polyester banner with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle silkscreened in bright white above the I-dare-you phrase “Come and Take It.”
“This school is not doing a great job at protecting conservative students,” Li said.
South Pasadena High School has become Li’s proverbial bullfighting ring. Located 10 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, the school serves roughly 1,500 students. Li will be a senior come September of 2018.
Li said, “A healthy exchange of ideas is what makes this country great in the first place.”
Such an exchange, healthy or not, was on full display in the wake of the 2018 Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
In April, hundreds of Li’s schoolmates participated in the National School Walkout to end gun violence. Less than two weeks later, Li led a walkout to support Stand for the Second, a student movement that opposes gun control. He said that 20 fellow students joined him.
Partisan fury over firearms policy has long been tantamount to national debates over abortion, government regulation, gay rights and god-fearing. A multitude of deadly school shootings riddled the U.S. throughout the 20th century.
But it was the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School that marked a turning point.
Schools have since become touchstones in profound battles over First and Second Amendment protections.
According to Education Week, 42 people have been killed and 78 injured at U.S. schools in 2018.
South Pasadena has certainly had its share of shootings and threats.
On May 6, 1940, 38-year-old South Pasadena Junior High School principal Verlin Spencer shot and killed two teachers and three administrators.
At a post-prom party in 2003, South Pasadena High School student David Melendez shot La Canada High School student Thomas Blasucci in the face. Blasucci survived. Melendez was sentenced to 16 years in prison; his father said the boys were football rivals who had previously fought.
Two South Pasadena High School students were arrested in August of 2014. Police chief Arthur Miller said the boys wanted “to kill as many people as possible” at the school after it reopened from summer recess. Both teens were placed on probation after admitting to criminal threats. They remain unidentified.
In 2017, South Pasadena police detained another male high school student who used Snapchat to post a photo of a gun cache, on top of which he wrote, “3 replies and I’ll shoot up the school.” The student turned himself in and remains unidentified.
While discussing personal challenges at South Pasadena High School, Charles Li was perched on the steps to the auditorium, his posture perfectly plumb, his yes-sir-no-sir comportment as impressive as his wrinkle-free dress shirt with ironed jeans in the midst of a blistering weather spell.
“I like to dress like this – professional – it’s a club thing.”
The club in question is the Young Conservative Club that Li founded. He said it serves as a platform for roughly two dozen compatriots and him to maximize free speech at a school where abortion-neutral, anti-chain immigration, pro-gun conservatives are often stifled by a liberal learning environment.
Good graces and bad behavior are far from an unusual combination for teens. But when it comes to weightier matters, context can be critical.
Li said his mother moved the family from China to greater Los Angeles four years ago, and she did so for two reasons; Chinese government operatives nearly beat his uncle to death for founding an unauthorized church and Li himself was being investigated over his own politically charged website
According to Human Rights Watch, the Chinese government executes a “broad and sustained offensive on human rights,” including “one of the strictest online censorship regimes in the world.”
Yet, according to Communist-controlled Chinese newspaper The Global Times, “The US should learn from China and genuinely protect human rights. If the US does not control its guns, problems caused by firearms in the foreseeable future will continue plaguing US society.”
Li said that hostile socio-political environments have shaped his ideology and pro-gun stance. “Guns make me feel safe against tyranny – it can occur everywhere, including the United States. Just look at FDR and what he did to Japanese-American citizens. People have the right to determine their own destiny, unlike what’s occurring in North Korea or China.”
When asked about shooting guns, Li said, “My family doesn’t own guns, but one of my mom’s friends, who I think she met at church, is a certified NRA arms instructor. He taught me how to shoot an AR-15 in [Las] Vegas about a year ago.”
Li said he has fired guns on multiple occasions; his first trigger-pull was when he was between 14 and 15 years old.
South Pasadena High School periodically stages “Tiger Talks” – student-led debates over hot-button issues. Two of those debates, including one soon after the Parkland shooting, spotlighted Second Amendment rights. Li took center-stage as the pro-gun advocate. He said that such prickly crusades rub schoolmates the wrong way
“I go to class and people are mocking me. People mock my accent, mock the way I talk, and sometimes my beliefs – they come up to my face and say I’m a fascist.”
Kevin is a schoolmate of Li’s. His parents required that his real name be protected because he is a minor. Kevin said that he is a self-identified centrist. “The things Charles [Li] shares are controversial, but though it’s easy to see how he would be targeted, students have normalized their harassment of him – they try to censor him.
Grace is another schoolmate who demanded anonymity because she too is a minor and concerned for her safety. Grace said she leans Republican. “Charles basks in the attention. I think his banner depicts violence and is extremely disruptive. But he has the right to express himself, whether or not I think it’s inappropriate.”
Li said that students are not the only people who target him for fervently promoting conservative beliefs.
South Pasadena school district superintendent Geoff Yantz wrote a letter to parents prior to the school’s two student walkouts this past spring. According to his letter, “should a student-led walkout take place, all views will be respected.”
Li said that, during a brunch break before his march, he wrapped the “Come and Take It” banner around his neck as a cape. A few minutes later, a campus security guard told him to meet vice principal David Speck and principal Janet Anderson in the school’s front office.
Because he said that Speck and Anderson had unfairly targeted him in the past, Li recorded the conversation on a secondary device, not his cellphone
The taped conversation offers no indication that the two administrators knew they were being recorded at the time. Li said he did not make them aware of it, and he made no edits.
SPECK: They don’t feel comfortable with a gun on your back if you’re wearing it not as a flag but as a cape.
LI: It’s not an actual gun.
ANDERSON: Well, you kind of have more of a right to wear it [cape] off-campus … because our dress code says people cannot promote drug use, violence and so forth.
LI: How am I promoting any violence?
ANDERSON: I don’t really see how it’s supporting the constitution by wearing a gun on your back.
SPECK: If it’s gonna be something that intimidates or scares people or disrupts the educational process…
LI: How so? I just wore it for the march right now, in a break, when no one was learning.
ANDERSON: You always think you can challenge when we’re just trying to get clarity … don’t come off with an argumentative tone, because I’m not in the mood … I’ve always told you, you’re a provocateur.
In a later response to Anderson’s statement about being a provocateur, Li said, “She believes that anyone who has an opinion on campus that is the complete opposite of what the majority believes is provocative.”
Anderson and Speck declined to comment on the following:
Were students who participated in the National School Walkout allowed to have signs on campus before their march?
Two of those walkout signs read, “Guns are the Death of the U.S.” and “Gays Not Guns.” If any student was offended or threatened by those signs, or if they felt the signs disrupted the educational process, would the sign-bearers have been called into the principal’s office?
Per the school’s student handbook, “Prohibited items of clothing include those bearing connotations of violence.” How do you define “connotations of violence?”
Li said that, at approximately 2:40 p.m. the day of his walkout, he was taking notes in English class when a student delivered a call slip requiring him to immediately return to Anderson’s office. Li also said he recorded that conversation using the same tape and, again, did not inform either administrator.
According to that tape, Anderson said to Speck, “I’d like to have that [phone] out of his possession.” Speck said to Li, “We’re going to be talking to you in a minute about what you might possibly have on that phone.”
Li said that, without his consent, Speck tugged the cellphone from his hand and searched through voice memos and a photo album. Li also said that Speck told Anderson he only found a few photos from Li’s walkout and one voice memo related to a school project.
Three other schoolmates said that Speck frequently takes cellphones from students.
In a response to questions regarding this cellphone incident, superintendent Yantz said that “it’s the district’s practice to refrain from recounting specific details since students and faculty are involved.”
However, Yantz did provide a lengthy written statement. According to his document, “Upon request, the student involved voluntarily turned in his phone, which was not searched by administrators. The student made a recording on a different device without the consent or knowledge of the administrators.”
Aaron Caplan is a Loyola Law School professor. Based upon his understanding of the incident, Caplan said Li did not necessarily disrupt the educational process. “It’s easy for people in positions of authority to overreact to what they perceive as potential threats.”
Regarding cellphones, Caplan said, “Information on your cellphone is highly private, so for even police to search it, they need probable cause and a warrant.”
Ana Mendoza is a staff attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. She said, “The California Electronic Communications Privacy Act prohibits government officials from searching private cellphones with very few exceptions, such as the threat of death or serious bodily injury.”
Arthur Burgos is the sole South Pasadena Police Department school resource officer. Burgos serves more than 5,000 district students.
He was present during Li’s walkout. “I know Charles – he does not possess guns.” Burgos did not elaborate, although Li is a minor, which ordinarily restricts the release of police reports.
Li said, on election night in November 2016, he posted a meme on his Instagram page. Its challenging content got the attention of local police who conducted a search of Li’s residence.
Burgos said, “Charles has a right to express himself within the law. Sensitive political issues like the one at school should not involve me.” He paused and chuckled. “But social media is game-changing — I often say it will bring an end to our society.”
Sam is another classmate of Li’s. His parents required that his name be changed because he too is a minor. Sam identifies as a liberal. He said that he met Li only once but is well aware of his school and online exploits.
Sam said that he did not take issue with Li’s Instagram and Facebook pages being actively shared by students or that Li uses such platforms to push buttons. He also said that the way Li had been handled by Speck and Anderson was “very confrontational.”
Li has recently purged many of his Facebook posts for reasons, he said, that have to do with being more disciplined as he seeks political internships.
The majority of his Facebook messaging is comprised of random engagements with political candidates and reposts of content generated by and about far-right media frontrunners, including Ben Shapiro, Jesse Watters and Tomi Lahren.
Li attended the March for Our Rights rally in downtown Los Angeles, primarily organized and promoted by pro-gun conservative students.
Liberty Fuchs is a UCLA student who helped organized the march and knows Li through related events.
“We need to engage as people instead of sides,” she said. Fuchs said she remembers high school as a politically active conservative like Li. “The rhetoric then and now is toxic. We cannot continue to demonize within and without or matters for my generation will only worsen.”
According to NRA training sites and the USA Shooting database, mothers and fathers from downtown Los Angeles to Long Island, New York, help their teens lock .22 caliber rifle sights on paper targets the same way they help them navigate social studies assignments. This should not shock or surprise, primarily because guns have been in the hands of babes since the dawning of this nation.
Li rubbed his palms together as he sat on the steps of his high school auditorium. “I’m a peaceful person — I wouldn’t start violence.”
His gaze suddenly arced into the great wide open of the radiant southern California sky. “Even though messages can be offensive, why are they not allowed? People don’t have the right to feel safe. They don’t have the right to not be offended.”