Court rules against student who protested yearbook’s exclusion of his photo

NEW HAMPSHIRE — A senior at Londonderry High School who sued the school for refusing to allow a photograph of him with his shotgun to appear in the school yearbook will not have his photograph published, according to the judge who ruled in favor of the school on Feb. 14.

The student, Blake Douglass, protested the school’s decision because he said the picture represents his favorite hobby, trapshooting. In the photograph, Douglass is posing in trapshooting clothing with a shotgun over his shoulder.

Douglass sued in order to force school officials to publish his photograph.

Student editors offered to publish Douglass’ photograph in a community sports section, but Douglass declined the offer.

According to court documents, Douglass claimed school officials could not “lawfully refuse to publish [the photograph he submitted] because they disapprove of the ‘message’ they think readers will take from it.”

Douglass also claimed the school was using “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination” in violation of his First Amendment rights.

“The First Amendment protects individuals against governmental action,” wrote Judge Steven McAuliffe, of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire, in the preliminary ruling. “It does not restrict the conduct of private citizens, nor is it violated when one private actor ‘suppresses’ the speech of another.”

The judge’s ruling in favor of the school was based on Principal James Elefante’s testimony in January that student editors, rather than school officials, made the decision to disallow Blake Douglass’ photograph.

“The state has not, it seems, suppressed Blake’s speech; his fellow students have done so,” McAuliffe wrote. “The First Amendment to the Constitution simply does not preclude such conduct by private actors. Consequently, Blake has not met his burden of demonstrating that he is likely to succeed on the merits of his First Amendment claim.”

Penny Dean, Douglass’ lawyer, claims her side was never told until recently that students made the decision to decline the photograph. Dean added that she suspects Elefante could be “telling a story.”

“Up until the time we went to court we were told that Mr. Juster, the assistant yearbook adviser, made the decision,” Dean said.

Dean also said that on two separate occasions Juster told Douglass and his mother that Douglass could not have his picture in the yearbook, without Juster mentioning the need to check with student editors beforehand.

“[Juster] should have said, ‘[The students] are going to have a meeting, I’ll get back to you,’” Dean said. “Instead, on the spot, he said, ‘No, from what you’re telling me, I’m not going to allow it.’”

Elefante disputes Dean’s claim, saying that it was the student editors’ choice all along. The student editors of the yearbook held two votes, with the final vote resulting in a unanimous decision to disallow Douglass’ photograph, Elefante said.

Elefante said the high school and student editors are “very pleased” with the court’s decision.

“Students can get the yearbook published on time, and [since] the judge ruled in [the students’] favor it gives them the editorial control of the book,” Elefante said.

Danielle Taylor, senior editor of the yearbook, said the yearbook staff felt the photograph was inappropriate because the school does not allow guns on school grounds. Taylor added that she is in support of the court’s decision, and said the other staff members feel the same way.

After Douglass filed his lawsuit in September, the school district instituted a new yearbook policy that states that props are no longer allowed in senior photographs. The policy did not determine the outcome of Douglass’ case because it was adopted following his lawsuit.

Dean said she is going to ask the judge for a hearing to “make [the administration] prove the kids really made this decision.”

–By Britt Hulit

CASE: Douglass v. Londonderry School, et al., No. 04-424-SM (D.N.H. Feb. 14, 2005)
Read previous coverage