A digitally altered photograph on websites connected to Jim Shreve, a candidate for Ravalli County Commission in District 1, has ignited something of a tempest in the Florence-Carlton School District.
The original photograph was a group picture of the students, teachers and staff in the schoolyard of Florence-Carlton Elementary school, taken five years ago for the school yearbook by former Florence-Carlton trustee Rick Paris. The altered image is a composite with a superimposed and smiling Shreve and a banner which appears to be held by the students that reads "Vote Jim Shreve for Commissioner."
Shreve is currently serving on the Florence-Carlton School Board, though his term expires next month. He is not seeking reelection.
When Florence-Carlton superintendent John McGee contacted Shreve on Tuesday and complained that the district felt it was improper to use a photo of students for political purposes, McGee said Shreve refused to take down the image.
Saying the photograph had been "changed and manipulated" and was used without the school district's knowledge or consent, McGee said he explained to Shreve in no uncertain terms that "the students in our school district do not publicly support the candidacy of any candidate for political office."
Paris, who served as a trustee from 2007-2008 and quit after claiming that the district finances were being mismanaged, said the district has no right to dictate how the photograph is used.
"It's my picture," Paris said. "So I can do anything I want with it."
McGee said, after hearing from unhappy parents and teachers, he called Ravalli County Attorney George Corn, the Helena office of Dennis Unsworth, the state Commissioner of Political Practices, and officials with the Montana School Boards Association.
Dennis Unsworth said Wednesday his office had been receiving calls from people in the Florence-Carlton district.
But because it was not about the disclosure of campaign finances, the issue was not really a matter for his department, Unsworth said.
For his part, by Wednesday Shreve had posted a new Rick Paris photo, this one with his photo superimposed on another image showing children. In that photo children are running across grass in an apparent Easter Egg hunt, again with language touting his candidacy. Paris declined to say where that photo was taken.
Shreve said he wasn't clear if the use of the photographs violated any law.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I understand the law, but I'm not the person who's going to break the law" knowingly, Shreve said.
Shreve pointed out that the photograph of the elementary students had been altered in a similar fashion last year to campaign for a teacher the school administration was planning to cut loose.
Nobody cried foul then, Shreve said.
"And I'd say, if (it's not a crime) now, then I want the people who are creating this issue to stop it and maybe even apologize to me," Shreve said.
Nonetheless, after being interviewed by the Ravalli Republic about the matter on Wednesday afternoon, Shreve called back to inform the paper that the offending image had been taken down from his Facebook page.
In its place was the same Florence-Carlton Elementary School image, but now altered to blur out the children. The banner and candidate remain visible.
Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the Montana teacher's union, said even with the faces blurred out, using the photo for a political use is inappropriate.
"It was still a gathering of people for one event and he's using it for another purpose," Feaver said. "It doesn't matter whether the faces are fuzzed out. They were there to celebrate a school and they ended up celebrating a political candidate. So that is wrong."
Feaver said he'd heard complaints from a half dozen teachers.
Given that the district has parents fill out paperwork that allows them to stipulate that their children may not have their photos used for any kind of publication without expressed permission, McGee said the school was concerned about liability.
"The School District is now taking action and will pursue any and all remedies at our disposal to protect the students trust," McGee said, in a statement e-mailed to the Republic. "This is a very serious issue for the Florence-Carlton School District and is viewed as a misuse of our students for political gain."
Whatever measures the district takes, McGee said any censure or action with regard to the Shreve's standing with school board would have to come from the trustees.
Cristi Migliaccio, a mother of two students at the school, said viewing the photo as a parent left her feeling like her kids had been violated.
"I don't feel like my kids should be pimped out for an election campaign," Migliaccio said. "And besides, my kids, being 6 and 8, have no political position. They don't even know who Mr. Shreve is."
Migliaccio admitted that because she is an out-of-district parent, it was tough to speak out against a trustee who could theoretically vote not to allow her children into Florence-Carlton schools.
"But as a parent I have to defend the rights of our children," she said.
Clem Work, a constitutional scholar and media law professor at the University of Montana, said the use of digital manipulation using programs such as Adobe Photoshop in this case creates a dishonest image.
"A lot of people will recognize this as dorky photoshopping, but a lot of people won't," Work said. "He's deceiving voters with a photo that purports to say ‘these kids and the school are for me.'"
While the use does not constitute a copyright violation, Work said the legal line that Paris and Shreve might have crossed rests with in the area of false-light privacy.
"It's putting them in a wholly different context than they had bargained for or willingly entered into," Work said. "It's not necessarily a negative context but it is a false context."
Still, Work wasn't sure if case law in Montana would support any legal claims on false-light privacy grounds.
"Is it an ethical breach? Hell, yes," Work added. "He's adapting a routine photo of school kids for his own political campaign without any foreknowledge by any of the parties. It just seems kind of crude."
In a letter on the Republic's opinion page, a group of parents, teachers and staff members of Florence-Carlton School voiced their objection to the photo being used by Shreve for his campaign.
"As faculty we were under the impression the photo was for the yearbook only, not for Mr. Paris' or Mr. Shreve's personal use or gain," the letter says. "We feel it is a violation of privacy for all in the photo.
"Mr. Shreve emphasizes honesty and respect in his campaign website and biographical information. We feel that using the photo and caption, "It's great to have the younger generation behind my campaign" implies that the students and faculty of FCS support Mr. Shreve for commissioner. It is not honest or ethical for him to commandeer a photo and speak for us."
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Reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at 363-3300 or email@example.com.