N.H. court rejects student's claim that school unfairly banned photo

Student editors made decision to disallow photo of student with shotgun, court rules

NEW HAMPSHIRE --A federal court ruled on March 17 that a student’s First Amendment rights had not been violated when his senior photo of him with a shotgun was banned from the yearbook, because student editors--not school officials--had made the decision.

Londonderry High School student Blake Douglass sued his school district in October in order to force the yearbook to publish his photo, claiming the ban violated his constitutional rights. Douglass’ photo showed him clad in trapshooting clothing, kneeling with a shotgun propped over his shoulder. Douglass said he wanted to express his enthusiasm for his favorite hobby, trapshooting.

The court’s decision was based on the testimony of Principal James Elefante that students chose not to publish the photo. Elefante said the students on the yearbook staff voted unanimously against it.

“I find that the student editors made the decision not to publish Blake’s chosen photograph; the school administration did not,” Judge Steven McAuliffe wrote. “The students exercised judgment and discretion, that they were not coerced or unduly influenced by anyone, and their editorial decision is not attributable to the school administration.”

McAuliffe suggested that Douglass might have had a constitutional claim for violation of his First Amendment rights if school officials, acting as state actors, had decided to ban the photo, but said the student editors were acting as private citizens.

In his earlier ruling against preliminary injunctive relief, McAuliffe stated, “The First Amendment does not restrict the conduct of private citizens, nor is it violated when one private actor suppresses the speech of another.”

Danielle Taylor, the senior yearbook editor, said the staff voted to ban the photo because students felt Douglass’ photo was inappropriate.

But Douglass’ lawyer, Penny Dean, said she does not believe student editors made the decision.

One student testified that the yearbook editors voted to allow the photo, which disputes the administration’s claim that it was a unanimous decision, Dean said. Dean also said some students were unsure if they were considered student editors and testified that anywhere from two to 15 students were editors at the time of the decision. According to court documents, 10 student editors voted on the photo.

Dean added that she and Douglass were “repeatedly” told by the school that the administration decided not to publish the photo.

Dean argued that Douglass’ photo should have been permitted because it fell within the guidelines of the school’s then-existing policy governing student publication content.

"We encourage the use of school-sponsored publications to express students’ points of view,” the policy stated. “They shall be free from all policy restrictions outside the normal rules for responsible journalism (the avoidance of libel, obscenity, defamation, false statements or material advocating racial or religious prejudice).”

Mark Child, regional director of the Journalism Education Association and a yearbook adviser, said he understands why student editors might have made the decision to reject the photo, citing the recent cases of high school shooting incidents.

“If an administrator stepped in and said ‘no way,’ that becomes a whole different issue,” Child added. “Definitely it should be up to the students to determine content.”

Robert Richards, the co-director of the Pennsylvania First Amendment Center, said the Douglass ruling is an example of what he claimed is U.S. courts’ current “trend” toward giving great deference to school systems in student speech and student press cases.

“[The trend] is unfortunate,” Richards said. “[These types of rulings] lead to an environment where students are not able to freely exercise their First Amendment rights because the courts have been allowing school systems to pull back on that.”

Richards said the rulings have led students to censor themselves, because they have grown up in a country where “their rights have been chipped away.”

“When you live in that type of repressive environment and you go to school in that, it’s not surprising that students [censor themselves],” Richards said. “If the student editors [truly] made the decision, they did so because they have been reared in censorship and as a result they think ‘Oh, this picture’s no good--we have to take it out.’”

The school has since instituted a new policy that bans all props from senior photos, in order to avoid similar lawsuits in the future, according to Elefante. The policy was adopted after the decision was made to ban Douglass’ photo, and thus did not affect the outcome of the case.

Dean said if the Douglass family is able to raise enough funds, they may appeal the ruling to the state’s United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

CASE: Douglass v. Londonderry Sch. Dist.,

205 WL 626984. No. Civ. 04-424-SM, slip op. (D. N.H., March 17, 2005)

Read previous coverage

Londonderry High School, New Hampshire, reports, Spring 2005