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N.H. teen’s yearbook gun photo effort misfires

By The Associated Press
03.18.05

CONCORD, N.H. — A high school senior's bid to have his shotgun in his yearbook portrait was rejected yesterday by a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge Steven McAuliffe ruled in Douglass v. Londonderry School that Blake Douglass failed to prove that school officials violated his First Amendment rights.

He said the decision to withhold publishing the picture was made by student editors, whose decisions are protected by the First Amendment.

The boy's lawyer, who had maintained the school acted to ban the photo, said she would appeal to a higher court if the Londonderry High School student decides to keep fighting the school district.

"I think the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would like to hear from us," she said, "but it's going to be Blake's decision," said Penny Dean.

A telephone message left at the boy's home last night was not returned immediately.

Douglass, an avid trap shooter, wanted his broken-open shotgun over his shoulder the way he says seniors in earlier yearbooks have used musical instruments to illustrate their hobbies. The school recently banned all props from senior photos.

Douglass had maintained the decision was made by the yearbook's faculty adviser and other school officials, but McAuliffe found otherwise.

The yearbook, he wrote, "is the product of volunteer efforts by students."

Last week, McAuliffe hinted that he would rule against the senior when he congratulated him for bringing the case forward.

"I'm awful proud of you for bringing the case. You stood up for your First Amendment rights," McAuliffe told him. "If it doesn't go well for you, I want you to know you did the right thing."

The yearbook deadline is March 20 — any appeal would not occur before then, so the photo likely won't be published.

But Sherwood Douglass, the boy's father, said last week an appeal could set legal precedents "so hopefully people won't have to go through the pain of what (Blake) went through."

The Douglass family has maintained faculty members, not students, banned the photo because of a perceived prejudice against guns. If so, the administrators, as state actors, would have violated Douglass' constitutional rights.

But in a preliminary decision last month, McAuliffe ruled student editors decided to reject the photo. That ruling weakened Douglass' case because students are private actors and, like newspaper editors, their editorial choices are protected by the First Amendment.

Blake Douglass claimed the school was discriminating against him based on his hobby, violating his freedom of expression.

Trapshooting involves clay disks tossed into the air. Douglass posed in trapshooting gear, including a sportsman's vest, with his broken-open Ruger shotgun draped over his shoulder. School officials acknowledged the photo is not threatening, but contended it would be inappropriate and could send the message that the school endorses guns.

Dean also had argued that a new school policy banning yearbook photos with props, political ads and items promoting alcohol, drugs or tobacco was adopted to target Douglass. Because it was passed after he sued, it shouldn't apply to him, she said.

But in yesterday's ruling, McAuliffe wrote that Douglass failed to prove that "the new policy is a ruse or facade, actually designed to suppress his particular message."


Previous
Federal judge won't delay yearbook publication
Student had sought to halt publication while he fights to include photo of him posing with shotgun. 02.16.05

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St. Louis superintendent recalls high school yearbook

Creg Williams cites sexually suggestive contents, gang signs, other questionable material in arts magnet school publication. 06.08.05

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

Principal says image of Patrick Agin with medieval sword violates zero-tolerance policy against weapons. 12.21.06

Calif. school restores religious references to yearbook ads
Conservative legal group had threatened to sue if district didn't have original ads reprinted. 03.12.07

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