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R.I. mom sues after school refuses son's yearbook photo

By The Associated Press
12.21.06

Editor’s note: On Jan. 19, 2007, Rhode Island’s education commissioner ordered Portsmouth High School to publish Patrick Agin’s photo. Portsmouth High School authorities can regulate editorial content in the yearbook, but they acted unreasonably by rejecting Agin’s photo, hearing officer Paul Pontarelli wrote in a ruling approved by Education Commissioner Peter McWalters. The ruling came after the federal judge considering Agin’s lawsuit recommended that the matter first be examined by the Department of Education, the ACLU reported on its Web site.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The mother of a high school senior who posed in chain mail with a medieval sword for his yearbook picture sued after the school rejected the photo because of its zero-tolerance policy against weapons.

Patrick Agin, 17, belongs to the Society for Creative Anachronism, an international organization that researches and recreates medieval history. He submitted the photo in September for the Portsmouth High School yearbook.

But the school's principal refused to allow the portrait as Agin's official yearbook photo because he said it violated a policy against weapons and violence in schools, according to a lawsuit filed Dec. 11 by the Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The lawsuit against Principal Robert Littlefield and the members of the Portsmouth School Committee seeks an order that would prevent the yearbook from being published without Agin's senior portrait.

Agin's mother, Heidi Farrington, says she and her son believe the decision defies common sense.

"He doesn't see it as promoting violence," Farrington said. "He sees it just as a theatrical expression of the reenactment community that he's involved in right now."

Littlefield said that pictures of students wielding weapons were not appropriate material for the school's official yearbook.

He said there had to be a line drawn somewhere as to what material can and cannot be included in the yearbook, and that the responsibility for deciding ultimately fell to him. He said the yearbook editorial board and its adviser had agreed with him.

"This is an official school annual publication, and as such, the right of individual expression is limited," Littlefield said.

According to the lawsuit, Littlefield told Farrington she could pay to put the photo in the advertising section of the book, but he would not allow it as Agin's senior portrait.

"That in and of itself demonstrates to us that there's absolutely no legitimate rationale for banning Patrick's photo," said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU.

Littlefield said he thought there would be less editorial scrutiny given to paid advertising space, and that an ad would not be viewed as receiving the school's endorsement.

The complaint says there is nothing in the weapons policy that would apply to the picture Agin submitted. It also says the weapons policy is arbitrarily enforced, noting theatrical plays at the school have included prop weapons and that the mascot — a patriot — is depicted on school grounds and in publications as carrying a weapon.

School committee member Douglas Wilkey, who is among those being sued, said he thought Littlefield was wrong about school policy.

"He has read into it things that are not even there," Wilkey said.


Update
R.I. school to print yearbook photo of teen holding sword
Attorney for district says officials believed decision to ban picture was correct, but they couldn't afford the legal fight. 01.31.07

Related

High school, student reach accord over cannon in yearbook photo

Minnesota school officials agree student may pose on top of howitzer - if barrel is covered by a U.S. flag. 12.01.99

Florida student settles lawsuit over yearbook dress code
School administrators had insisted Nikki Youngblood wear 'scoop neck drape,' as other girls did; teenager refused and her picture was not taken. 05.15.04

N.H. teen’s yearbook gun photo effort misfires
Federal judge says Blake Douglass failed to prove school officials violated his free speech; student editors were within their rights in not publishing picture. 03.18.05

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