ACLU of Rhode Island Files Lawsuit Challenging Ban of High School Yearbook Photo

December 12, 2006 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI – The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Portsmouth High School senior Patrick Agin, whose planned yearbook photo was rejected by the principal on the grounds that it violates the school district’s “zero tolerance” policy for weapons. In the photo, Patrick is dressed in a medieval chain mail coat with a prop sword over his shoulder, representing his long-standing interest in medieval history.

High School Senior Patrick Agin’s yearbook photo was banned due to his school’s “zero tolerance” policy on weapons.
The lawsuit, filed in Rhode Island Superior Court by ACLU volunteer attorneys Thomas Connolly and George Lieberman, argues that Principal Richard Littlefield’s actions violate Agin’s rights to freedom of speech. The ACLU seeks a temporary restraining order preventing the school from printing the yearbook without Agin’s photo.

“Portsmouth has vividly demonstrated how ‘zero tolerance’ policies serve as a simple-minded substitute for actual thinking and common sense,” said ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown. “That is hardly something an educational institution should be proud of.”

Although relying on the school’s “no weapons” policy to ban the submitted yearbook photo, the principal has conceded that Agin could include the same photo, for a fee, in the yearbook’s advertising section. The ACLU further notes that the high school’s mascot is a Revolutionary War soldier who is occasionally depicted armed with a weapon, and that the school’s own Web site contains photographs of students with fake guns and swords. The ACLU said that the school’s ban on “weapons and violence in school” has no applicability to Patrick’s yearbook photograph.

In a letter sent to the principal last week, the ACLU’s Brown criticized the school district for its “cookie cutter” approach to education that punishes students “not for being bad, but for being different.” Brown cited an incident four years ago in which Julie Cahill, another Portsmouth High School senior – a former class president and a member of the National Honor Society, drama club, Thespian Society, school band and literary magazine – was barred by school officials from participating in a mentoring program for elementary school children because she had purple hair.

Agin’s mother, Heidi Farrington, noted that her son is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization that promotes research and reenactments of medieval history, and criticized Portsmouth’s principal for punishing her son for his creativity.

“Technology and advancements in art and music and theater have always been and always will be made by those who think outside the box. It is amazing to me that it is so important for Mr. Littlefield to create conformity and to squash individual expression,” Farrington said. “As an educator he should be celebrating individuality and not forcing these young adults to be sheep.”

The ACLU’s complaint is online at:

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