CONCORD, N.H. – Where other students might pose for their senior yearbook photo with tennis rackets or favorite cars, Blake Douglass (search) wants to be seen with his shotgun.
The 17-year-old senior filed a federal lawsuit to force Londonderry High School (search) to allow the photo and give up the policy school officials used to reject it.
"What they’re doing is basically discriminating based on content or message," said Penny Dean (search), Douglass’ lawyer and a specialist in gun cases. "You can’t do that. You might want to but you can’t — and especially you can’t with a broad policy like this."
"We want the picture in the yearbook," said Dean said after filing the lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court.
The lawsuit seeks a temporary injunction so the picture can appear in the yearbook and a permanent injunction against the "pick-and-choose policy" of what photographs are published, Dean said.
The lawsuit names the Londonderry school board members, high school principal, school superintendent, town manager and school officials involved in the production of the yearbook.
An avid hunter and trap and skeet shooter, Douglass said he decided long ago on his senior photo — an outdoor shot in a sportsman’s pose, wearing a shooting vest and holding his broke-open shotgun over his shoulder.
"He would look at his yearbooks since he’s been a freshman and say, ‘I can’t wait until I’m a senior — this is how I want my senior picture done,"’ said his mother, Kathy Douglass.
Blake Douglass saw seniors in previous classes have posed with musical instruments, dogs, inline skates and a Ford Mustang.
"Those were their hobbies and I just want to put my hobby in," he said. "I don’t see it as a threat."
School officials said the photo lacks context in the yearbook’s seniors section. They offered to publish it in a separate "community sports" section, but Douglass refused.
Principal James Elefante said that although the photo isn’t threatening, "I still stand by that holding a saxophone is different from holding a shotgun."
Superintendent Nathan Greenberg said school shootings around the country in recent years make him wary of allowing the photo in the seniors section.
"Maybe it’s not fair but that’s the reality," Greenberg said, adding that "part of our contention is that it could be construed that the school could be endorsing guns."
Douglass and his parents point to past senior photos that could be considered more objectionable, including students mugging with baseball bats, nooses and liquor bottles.
Greenberg said that though photos have been edited for content in the past, "there were some photos from time to time maybe that have slipped through and maybe shouldn’t have."
Dean said the argument of appropriateness doesn’t wash with the school’s policy on student publications:
"We encourage the use of school sponsored publications to express student’s points of view. They shall be free from all policy restrictions outside the normal rules for responsible journalism ... Student publications shall provide as much opportunity as possible for the sincere expression of student opinion," it states.
"I think they should stick to their policy," Blake said. "They have one written but they choose not to follow it."
"If we were to list every policy," Greenberg said, "the students would have a book that weighed 25 pounds."
Dean, a gun enthusiast and specialist in gun cases, believes Blake was targeted because of his interests. She cited as proof teachers confiscating his hunting magazines and turning down requests for ROTC or a trapshooting team at school.
Douglass holds firm. "It’s worth it. It’s what I believe in," he said. "I don’t see why other people’s pictures were allowed but not mine. Those were their hobbies and I just want to put my hobby in."