It's A Yearbook Photo, Not A 1st Amendment Issue

yearbook photo

“One of the strange happening in Fargo this week is that of an enraged dad who is threatening to sue a Fargo high school,” John Andrist writes elsewhere on SAB today. “His son had submitted a yearbook photo in which he was wrapped in stars and stripes and holding an assault weapon. The principal said no way.”

“The father and son, even for a libertarian like me, are ballistically over the top,” he adds.

I tend to agree, though not because the response from school officials made any kind of sense. I missed the controversy Andrist is writing about because I was at a conference in Washington D.C. when the news broke. But for those of you who are, like me, just catching up at issue is a high school senior – one Josh Renville – who submitted a year book photo holding a rifle he built himself.

Renville’s photo seems to have prompted a disconnect from reality for certain school officials.
“It’s really trying to emphasize the idea that the school is a safe zone,” Fargo North Principal Andy Dahlen told ABC News about why the photo was banned.

So we’re protecting kids who probably spend their afternoons slaughtering digital bad guys in video games with guns from a photo of a responsible gun owner and a gun he built himself?

renvillepostValley News Live reported Dahlen as saying the photo “violates state and federal laws outlawing weapons within a thousand feet of a school.”

He realizes it was just a photo of a gun and not, you know, an actual gun right? For all this hand-wringing about violent video games and gun culture, these naifs realize that violent crime in America has been in decline for a generation now, right? Despite more violence in the media, and more guns in America than ever before?

The next  thing you know we’ll be suspending 2nd graders for eating their pastries into the form of a gun. Oh, wait a minute…

But painfully out of touch school officials aside, I’m not sure I buy the reaction from Renville and his father Charlie. The latter ignited the controversy over the photo with an epic Facebook rant about the stupidity of the school’s decision on the photo (see to the right).

I can understand being indignant about the school’s handling of the situation. Perhaps Principal Dahlen needs some cultural sensitivity training when it comes to respecting other people’s civil rights.

But Renville is now saying he’s considering suing the Fargo school district, and that this is a 1st amendment issue.

I’m not sure I agree.

For Renville’s side of the story listen to the audio above of an interview he did with Steve Hallstrom, Scott Hennen, and Alex Taylor on the Need To Know Morning Show on AM1100 WZFG in Fargo.

The problem with invoking the 1st amendment in this situation is that it presumes that the school has no right to control what content appears in its yearbook. That’s simply not the standard.

For instance, most schools enforce a dress code, up to and including for yearbook photos. You are simply not allowed to wear certain types of clothing. Like t-shirts with profanity on them, or advertisements for alcohol (I usually got in trouble for the latter at Minot High School, and one for the former).

Is that censorship? Can a student/parent invoke their 1st amendment right to wear a Coors Light t-shirt in a yearbook photo?

I doubt a parent taking to Facebook to complain about a school censoring a photo of a student with a “F**ck You” t-shirt from the yearbook would get the same sort of response Renville did.

If I were the principal of the school I wouldn’t have handled it this way. I would have allowed the photo, because disallowing it under policies intended to prohibit bringing real guns into school (instead of just, you know, pictures of guns) is ridiculous and the sort of thing that makes students and the public not want to take school officials seriously.

If I were the local school board, I would reconsider this principal’s employment.

That said, I don’t think the Renville family has a case against the school, which has every right to implement controls over the sort of content of their yearbook.

If anything, this is an argument for school choice, and enabling parents to opt-out of the de facto public school monopoly. I guarantee you that if schools had to compete for students we’d see a lot of this sort of nonsense disappear.