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ACLU Files Suit Challenging Ban of Student’s High School Yearbook Photo

Posted: December 12, 2006|Category: Free Speech Category: Students' Rights

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The ACLU of Rhode Island today 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. Patrick is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization that promotes research and reenactments of medieval history.

The lawsuit, filed in RI Superior Court by ACLU volunteer attorneys Thomas Connolly and George Lieberman, argues that Principal Richard Littlefield’s actions violate Patrick’s rights to freedom of speech. The suit seeks a temporary restraining order preventing the school from printing the yearbook without Patrick’s photo.

Although relying on the school’s “no weapons” policy to ban Patrick’s submitted yearbook photo, the principal has conceded that Patrick could include the same photo, for a fee, in the yearbook’s advertising section. The lawsuit 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 website contains photographs of students with fake guns and swords. The suit maintains 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, RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown criticized the school district for its “cookie cutter” approach to education that punishes students “not for being bad, but for being different.” The letter cited an incident four years ago when Julie Cahill, another Portsmouth High School senior – and a member of the National Honor Society, drama club, Thespian Society, school band and literary magazine, and former class president – was barred by school officials from participating in a mentoring program for elementary school children because she had purple hair.

Heidi Farrington, Patrick’s mother, said today: “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. As an educator he should be celebrating individuality and not forcing these young adults to be sheep.”  RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown added: “Portsmouth has vividly demonstrated how ‘zero tolerance’ policies serve as a simple-minded substitute for actual thinking and common sense. That is hardly something an educational institution should be proud of.”

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