Civil liberties are often the first casualties of war, just ask the 15-year old sophomore from Charleston, West Virginia who wanted to start a high school club that opposed the U.S. war on Afghanistan. Katie Sierra, a self-described anarchist, not only wanted to start a club to spread her views against the bombing but she also went to school wearing this message on her t-shirt: “When I saw the dead and dying Afghani children on TV, I felt a newly recovered sense of national security. God Bless America.”
But the school officials at her Sissonville High School ruled that neither the club nor the t-shirt would be allowed on school premises. And when Sierra insisted on wearing her t-shirt she was suspended by the school’s principal. Worse, when Sierra appealed the principle’s decision to the county board of education, the board upheld the decision.
“We want students to be able to express themselves, but in a way that does not disrupt the educational process,” explained board member Cheryle Hall. “We will back [the principal] to make sure the environment at the school is protected and harmonious.”
Sierra responded by filing a lawsuit, arguing that her free speech rights were being violated. And, to add insult to First Amendment injury, the West Virginia judge who received the case ruled almost immediately in favor of the school.
“The Constitution is at stake,” declared Roger Forman, Sierra’s attorney. “Every day her free speech is inhibited, the Constitution is harmed.”
On Monday Forman filed an appeal with the West Virginia Supreme Court. There’s no timetable on when (or if) the court will hear the case.
In an interview with the Daily Curio, Forman also reported that he was considering libelous suits against at least one member of the Board of Education for comments made during the public hearing they held on the matter. According to Forman, board member John Luoni accused Sierra of “committing treason” by espousing her anti-war views.
“Accusing someone of committing a crime when there was no crime committed is libelous,” Forman told the Curio. “And we intend to follow up on it.”
The local media in the Charlestown area has been pummeling Sierra in the court of public opinion in recent days. On November 5, Sierra’s hometown newspaper, the Charleston Daily Mail, ran a stinging editorial with this headline: “The School Day is for Education, Not Disruptive Political Expression.”
The Daily Mail’s editorial began with this head-scratching gem: “Americans cherish the freedoms guaranteed them under the Constitution, but the thoroughly egocentric exercise of those rights becomes tiresome.” And it ended with this similarly frightening bit of reasoning: “Americans have the right to express themselves, and that is sacred. But there is not, and never has been, a constitutional right to force everybody else in society to listen during school hours.”
Forman reported that Sierra is following the rules set forth by the school until the matter is ultimately resolved in the courts. But she’s not giving up all her rights to protest against both the killing by Osama bin Laden and the killing being done in the name of her country. Forman said that while Sierra is not wearing her slogan-bearing t-shirt, she is wearing black armbands as a symbol of her opposition to the U.S. militaristic response to the September 11th attacks.
“She’s a bright kid,” Forman said. “She’s a politically astute kid. And she doesn’t believe that war – and more killing – is the answer to our problems.”
Michael Colby is the editor of the Food & Water Journal. His last story for CounterPunch, Nuked Mail, dissected the feds’ plan to irradiate the US mail as a way to calm fears about anthrax and help bail out the nuclear waste industry.