NEW HAMPSHIRE — When Londonderry High School’s yearbook decided to reject a senior picture for being too non-traditional, it joined the ranks of dozens of other staffs that have made similar decisions by restricting everything from props such as musical instruments to the family pet.
Some schools even provide their own photographers to produce similar-looking head and shoulder shots to ensure consistency.
That just does not fly with Blake Douglass, a Londonderry senior who has put up his dukes in defense of his rejected picture. An avid sports shooter, he posed for his Reflections yearbook picture with a shotgun and navy sportsman’s vest.
Douglass has filed suit against the school district on claims it violated his First Amendment and due process rights. He also asked for an injunction to halt the printing of the yearbook until the matter is settled.
While it is unclear who made the initial decision to reject his photo — the yearbook staff or school officials — the outcome of the case could hinge on the answer.
If school officials rejected the picture and Reflections staff members went along with the decision, Douglass’ case could have weight.
However, if student editors made the decision to ax the photo, they were well within their rights as decision-makers for the content of a student publication, said Student Press Law Center Executive Director Mark Goodman.
The federal appeals court with jurisdiction over New Hampshire recognized in 1997 that no valid First Amendment claim against school officials arises when student editors reject content submitted to them.
Principal James Elefante said the yearbook adviser made the decision, which both he and the yearbook staff supported.
School board members also voted on Oct. 12 to ban the photo but gave Douglass the opportunity to pose with clay pigeons and other skeet shooting gear instead. He rejected the compromise.
“I just want my picture in the yearbook,” Douglass said.
Elefante admitted that while he does not believe the pose was threatening, it could have been taken out of context by other students or viewed as a political statement.
The staff accepted other pictures with props, Dean said.
“What they don’t understand is that [students] have this thing called the First Amendment,” she said, and Douglass is being unfairly discriminated against because his hobby of choice is not as accepted or commonplace as others, such as football or band.
Douglass said he is willing to fight a long and uphill battle to get the picture of his choice in Reflections.
Superintendent Nathan Greensburg said that few students choose to pose with props, and students next year will most likely be prohibited from using any props in their senior pictures.
Changes in senior photo policy are widespread recently, said Sandy Juniper, Polaris yearbook adviser for Pickerington High School North in Ohio. As schools and administrators take to the idea that senior photos could unfairly categorize students — wealthier students can often afford more poses and options while other students must use the school-provided photographer — discontent is bound to arise, she said.
When significant changes were made to the Polaris yearbook policy last year, students were in an uproar, she said. After a year, the swells subsided, and Juniper suspects the real reason behind the tension was the idea of change. When a school or community is used to expecting one thing, it can be hard to justify another, she said.
The National Scholastic Press Association has established guidelines for yearbooks, including senior portrait sections, that advocate similarity among photos, Juniper said.