A senior at Portsmouth High School filed a lawsuit againstthe school this month because it refused to publish a yearbook photo thatdepicted him dressed in medieval garb with a sword.
Patrick Agin,17, submitted a photo of himself dressed in a chain mail shirt holding a swordto the yearbook staff for his senior portrait. Agin is a member of the Societyof Creative Anachronism, an organization that researches and reenacts medievalhistory.
It was reported by many media outlets, including theAssociated Press, that school officials, not student editors, decided the photocould not be published in the yearbook. School officials, however, claim thatthey were only acting consistent with the student editors’ wishes.
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SPLC View: Who made the decision to reject Mr. Agin’sphoto? If this case goes to trial, that will likely be the key question uponwhich the outcome will turn. Early indications were that school officials madethe decision, but the school has now said that’s not so. The answer to thequestion is crucial because there is strong case law to suggest that studenteditors — when acting on their own — have substantial (perhaps evenunlimited) authority to reject third-party submissions, such as advertising,letters to the editor or, as here, photographs. The Supreme Court has made clearthat an individual’s right not to speak — or be forced to speak — isoften just as important as the First Amendment right to say what you want.Because students, unlike public school administrators, are not governmentofficials, there is no First Amendment violation when they reject outsidesubmissions. They are simply performing their editorial duties. However, if itturns out that school officials — who are government officials bound bythe First Amendment — rejected the photo, the court will have a moredifficult case on its hands.