Rhode Island principal caught smoking on school grounds suspends student that photographed her

A Providence high school’s plan to suspend a student for photographing his principal and posting the pictures on the Web went up in smoke after the state chapter of the ACLU stepped in on the student’s behalf.

Eliazar Velasquez, a sophomore at Central High School, took pictures of his principal, Elaine Almagno, smoking outside a school door. A state law prohibits smoking within 25 feet of a school. Velasquez distributed copies of the photographs at school on March 18 and posted the pictures on his Web site.

“What kind of example is [Almagno] setting for the students of Central High?” he wrote on his Web site, http://centralscoop.tripod.com. “This is a principal we’re talking about. She is a leader; one who should lead by example. And here we caught her smoking on school grounds; breaking the law. Now, I understand that people smoke. That is their business. It’s a free country. But the law should be followed as well. Especially by a principal.”

According to the Rhode Island ACLU Web site, Velasquez was suspended indefinitely on March 18 for “harassment and slander of the principal via the Internet.” The school district scheduled a hearing to determine whether Velasquez would be expelled. But after the ACLU contacted the school district on March 22, Velasquez was reinstated, and the district dropped its initial demands that he take down his Web site. The suspension will be wiped from his school records.

Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU, said he and Velasquez are “pleased” that the school decided to reverse course.

“We are pleased that the school has recognized Eliazar’s clear First Amendment right to make these photographs available to the public and to express his own personal opinions on his Web site,” Brown said, according to the ACLU.

A spokeswoman for the district, Melody Johnson, told The Associated Press that Almagno should not have been smoking on school grounds, but said that Velasquez is being educated about “appropriate ways to express disagreement, deal with conflicts and reach resolutions.”

But Brown said that should not be an issue in this case.

“School officials need to learn a little about the First Amendment,” Brown said.