Rhode Island Officials Rule School Can't Censor Teen's Yearbook Photo

January 19, 2007 12:00 am

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ACLU Calls Decision a Victory for Students’ Free Speech Rights

PROVIDENCE, RI – In an important victory for students’ free speech rights, the Rhode Island Department of Education today ordered Portsmouth High School to publish a yearbook photo of a student dressed in a medieval costume. The education commissioner agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island that school officials improperly used the district’s “zero tolerance” weapons policy to reject 17-year-old Patrick Agin’s senior portrait because he posed with a prop sword.

“The commissioner’s ruling rightly rejects the knee-jerk use of zero tolerance policies by school officials that often run counter to both common sense and students’ rights,” said ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown.

Last month, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on Agin’s behalf, arguing that high school principal Richard Littlefield’s decision to ban the senior portrait violated Agin’s rights to freedom of speech. U.S. District Court Judge William Smith recommended that the matter first be referred to the Department of Education for an examination, which led to today’s ruling.

In the photo, Agin is dressed in a medieval chain mail coat with a prop sword over his shoulder, representing his long-standing interest in medieval history. Agin is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization that promotes research and reenactments of medieval history.

According to legal papers filed by the ACLU, the principal cited the school’s “no weapons” policy to ban Agin’s senior portrait, but conceded that the same photo could be published, for a fee, in the yearbook’s advertising section. The ACLU also noted in its complaint that the high school’s mascot is a Revolutionary War soldier who is occasionally depicted armed with weapons, and that the school’s own Web site contains some photographs of students with fake guns and swords. In addition, other sections of the yearbook feature students engaged in banned activity or holding contraband items, including liquor bottles, bows and arrows, toy guns, and a knife.

Today’s 13-page Department of Education decision was issued by hearing officer Paul Pontarelli and approved by Commissioner Peter McWalters. The decision called the school district’s actions “unreasonable and arbitrary” and ordered the Portsmouth School Committee to include the photograph submitted by Agin in the senior portrait section of the yearbook.

“To exclude a photograph from the front of the yearbook for ‘policy reasons’ but allow it to be magnified in size and published in the back of the same book upon the payment of a fee is irrational,” Pontarelli wrote. “The record clearly indicates a practice by which students are permitted to use senior portrait photographs as a means to express their interests and hobbies… The expressive elements of the broadsword and dagger are essential to what [Agin] wanted to say about himself in his senior portrait.”

ACLU cooperating attorney Thomas Connolly, who handled the Agin case, said he is very pleased with today’s decision.

“The commissioner’s ruling recognizes the arbitrariness of the school district’s actions and vindicates Patrick’s free speech right to use his senior portrait as an expression of his strong interest in medieval history,” Connolly said.

Today’s decision is online at: www.aclu.org/freespeech/youth/27669prs20061212.html

More information on this case, including a copy of the ACLU complaint, is online at: www.aclu.org/freespeech/youth/27669prs20061212.html

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