I still cringe when I see my old high school yearbook photo. Let’s just say bad early 80s hair and a typically teenage complexion never inspires a wave of nostalgia in me. But as unhappy as I was then over my yearbook photo, it never dawned on me to file a lawsuit. Apparently, though, plenty of people have deemed it an issue important enough to ignite a legal crusade.

Tyler Bennett of Colts Neck, New Jersey was a junior and a member of his high school basketball team back in 2001. On the next to the last day of school, Tyler and his classmates eagerly awaited the distribution of their yearbooks. Tyler’s anticipation, however, quickly turned to embarrassment when he saw an action shot from a basketball game. The photo showed him making an elongated jump to shoot a basket, but since Tyler hadn’t worn a jockstrap that day, his genitalia were clearly visible. Humiliated, Tyler did not return to school the next day, and endured some teasing from his classmates. The school took immediate action, halting the distribution of remaining yearbooks and issuing a recall of yearbooks that had already been issued so that the picture could be cut out. Despite these efforts, Tyler claims that he was “shocked, embarrassed, and upset,” especially when an opposing school’s basketball player taunted him during a game the following season by asking him “How’s it hanging?”

So — despite the measures taken by the school to undo the mistake, and despite Tyler’s own fault in passing on an athletic supporter in the first place — Tyler Bennett engaged in an American tradition: he sued.

According to his lawsuit, it didn’t matter that Tyler had returned to school the next year, and even continued playing basketball. He suffered from “severe emotional distress,” said his lawyer, despite never having sought professional counseling.

Tyler and his lawyer sued the school, the Board of Education, the school superintendent, the principal, vice principal, a teacher, the yearbook advisor, nine students who had worked on the yearbook (some of whom weren’t even editors, but were sued because they were in a photograph with the editors), and the publishing company that put out the yearbook. The trial court threw out the case, and a New Jersey appellate court recently upheld this dismissal, calling Tyler’s claims “without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion.”

Blake Douglas of Londonderry High School in New Hampshire wasn’t upset over a photo that appeared in his yearbook; he took issue with a photo that didn’t run in his school yearbook. Londonderry had long maintained a tradition of permitting seniors to pose with something that represented a hobby; seniors in previous classes had posed with musical instruments, inline skates or other sports equipment, dogs, and even a restored Mustang. Blake, an avid hunter and trap and skeet shooter submitted an outdoor photo depicting him in a shooting vest, holding his broken-open shotgun over his shoulder. The school administration refused to publish the photo, claiming that in the wake of the school shootings around the country it could appear as though the school was endorsing guns, a position inconsistent with its “zero tolerance” approach to gun violence. Blake filed a federal lawsuit on the grounds that the school was violating the First Amendment by discriminating against his viewpoint. Blake and his lawyer pointed out that the school had previously permitted the publication of senior photos that could be considered even more objectionable, such as pictures of students mugging with nooses and liquor bottles. Despite evidence that it was school officials who refused to publish Blake’s photo, a federal judge ruled in favor of the school, saying that it was really the decision of student editors to disallow the photograph, and not members of the school administration. The school district had decided to avoid this type of controversy in the future by instituting a yearbook policy that no longer permits props of any kind in senior photos.

Sometimes, it’s not the yearbook photo itself that sparks debate, but rather the caption accompanying the photo. Last year, Waxahachie High School was in the hotseat after it ran photographs of the students belonging to the National Honor Society.

One caption, which listed all the white students’ names, identified an African-American student only as “Black Girl.” The school district apologized for this after the yearbooks were distributed, calling it an honest mistake resulting from the label’s intended use as a placeholder until the student’s name was tracked down. The four offending pages of the high school yearbook were reprinted, and the student, Shadoyia Jones, was correctly identified. To date, young Ms. Jones has yet to file a lawsuit.

In California, the Sacramento Unified School District was sued by a student for defamation and emotional distress over a derogatory caption in her high school yearbook. Days before graduation, the student received her yearbook and discovered a photo of herself bearing the caption “Osama Bin Laden.”

The girl is Fijian, but believes that someone mistook her dark complexion for Middle Eastern ancestry. Upset that the school was treating this as a harmless prank and that it only offered to cover the offensive caption with a sticker, the student and her parents filed suit. Although the defamation claim has already been dismissed, her emotional distress allegations are still pending.

The mother of 11 year-old Queens, New York student Asheana Maihepat had a much more basic problem with her daughter’s school yearbook photo. Lacking political controversy or claims of indecent exposure, she threatened legal action for one reason, “she felt the photo was unattractive.” It seems little Asheana was out sick on the day class photos were taken; although a make-up photo was taken later, school officials were worried that the photo wouldn’t be developed in time for the yearbook. They ended up using a photo taken by a student photographer, an extreme close-up of a pale, unsmiling Asheana. Her mother, concerned that Asheana would be emotionally scarred for life by the offending photo, demanded that the school recall all 200 of the yearbooks and reprint the entire yearbook. Although the school initially balked, a legal battle was averted when “Good Morning America” stepped in and supplied a professional photographer who took a “truly beautiful” photo of Asheana, according to Mrs. Maihepat. Now why didn’t my mother think of that?

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