In an important victory for students’ free speech rights, R.I. Department of Education hearing officer Paul Pontarelli issued an opinion today, approved by Commissioner Peter McWalters, agreeing with the ACLU of Rhode Island that the Portsmouth School Committee acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner in rejecting the planned yearbook photo of high school senior Patrick Agin on the grounds that it violated 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.

Last month, the RI ACLU filed a lawsuit on Patrick’s behalf, arguing that high school principal Richard Littlefield’s decision to ban the senior portrait violated Patrick’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, leading to today’s ruling.

Although relying on the school’s “no weapons” policy to ban Patrick’s submitted yearbook photo, the principal conceded that Patrick could include the same photo, for a fee, in the yearbook’s advertising section. The ACLU lawsuit further noted that the high school’s mascot is a Revolutionary War soldier who is occasionally depicted armed with weapons, and that the school’s own website contains some photographs of students with fake guns and swords. DOE hearing officer Pontarelli made note of both these items in calling the school district’s actions “unreasonable and arbitrary.” His decision ordered the School Committee “to include the submitted photograph in the senior portrait section of the yearbook.”

RI ACLU volunteer attorney Thomas Connolly, who handled the case, said: “I’m very pleased with the Commissioner’s ruling. It 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.” RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown added: “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.”

Some excerpts from Pontarelli’s 13-page ruling follow below:

“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 [Patrick] wanted to say about himself in his senior portrait.”

“Photographs from other student sections of the yearbook … show students engaged in various activities holding . . . a corn cob pipe, liquor bottles, a beer stein, toy guns, bows and arrows, swords, a knife, color guard rifle shapes, and an axe made of foil. Several photographs of the school band’s banner, depicting a musket-carrying patriot, appear in the yearbooks.”

“In the case of [Patrick’s] photograph . . . no tolerance for a yearbook photograph with a weapon becomes full tolerance when the family pays for the publication of the photograph. Tolerance for weapons can be purchased. This is illogical.”

“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. … Furthermore, we find that given the context and circumstances of [Patrick’s] photographic historical representation of himself as a medieval figure, his photograph does not conflict with the School Committee’s zero tolerance weapons policy.”