Rhode Island student files lawsuit after medieval senior photo rejected

RHODE ISLAND — A senior at Portsmouth High School filed a lawsuit against the school Tuesday because it refused to publish a yearbook photo that depicted him dressed in medieval garb with a sword.

Patrick Agin, 17, submitted a photo of himself dressed in a chain mail shirt holding a sword to the yearbook staff for his senior portrait. Agin is a member of the Society of Creative Anachronism, an organization that researches and reenacts medieval history.

It was reported by many media outlets, including the Associated Press, that school officials, not student editors, decided the photo could not be published in the yearbook.

But school Principal Robert Littlefield said he only supported the decision of the yearbook’s student editors to not to publish the photo. He said students made the decision because the photo violates the school’s “zero-tolerance” weapons policy.

In 2005, a New Hampshire federal court rejected a student’s First Amendment claim after his photo showing him in hunting garb with a shotgun was rejected from a school yearbook. The court said because student editors, not student officials, made the decision to reject the photo, there was no First Amendment violation.

“It’s the editors and school department’s view that the photo does not belong in the school’s publication,” said Steven Robinson, the school district’s lawyer.

The yearbook’s student editor could not be reached for comment.

The photo violates the school’s weapons policy because of the sword, Robinson said.

But the complaint, filed in the Rhode Island Superior Court, asks the court to issue a temporary restraining order that would prevent the yearbook from being published without Agin’s photo.

“The school’s rationale for prohibiting the photo is simply inapplicable,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Agin. “Patrick is not promoting violence or weapons use.”

Brown said the picture is important to Agin because he is passionate about medieval history and it is the way he wants to be remembered by his classmates.

School officials had said that Agin’s photo could be published if he bought an advertisement in the back of the yearbook, but Agin refused.

An advertisement page would not be a reflection of the school, Robinson said, saying that Agin was given an alternative to publish his photo.

But Brown said that Agin finds any attempt by the school to censor the photo unacceptable.

“We believe that Patrick’s free speech right is being infringed on by the school’s arbitrary decision to censor photo,” Brown said adding that the school’s weapons policy defense is irrelevant in the matter.

A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 14 to decide on the temporary restraining order.