John Tinker joins W.Va. teen to advocate free expression in schools

WEST VIRGINIA — Three decades after a landmark SupremeCourt decision upheld students’ freedom to express anti-war sentimentsin school, a high school sophomore was suspended last Octoberfor distributing pro-anarchy fliers and wearing a T-shirt thatprotested America’s military operations in Afghanistan.

Katie Sierra was suspended from Sissonville High School in October for distributing pro-anarchy fliers and wearing a T-shirt protesting military operations in Afghanistan.

This week the state chapter of the American Civil LibertiesUnion hopes to highlight similarities between the two First Amendmentcases and spark support for Katie Sierra, the suspended student,in a weeklong series of events titled “Tinker Days: Keepingthe Constitution Inside the Schoolhouse Gates.”

The 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moinesruled that students and teachers do not “shed theirconstitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at theschoolhouse gates.” It supported three Des Moines, Iowa,students who were suspended after they wore black armbands toschool to protest the Vietnam War. “Tinker Days” markedthe 33rd anniversary of the decision on Feb. 24.

ACLU leaders believe that Sierra’s expression should be protectedin the same way.

Andrew Schneider, executive director of the West Virginia ACLUchapter, said that he hoped “Tinker Days” would persuadesome of Sierra’s critics that her case is important to maintainingfreedom of expression in schools.

“[Sierra’s suspension] took place in a time when tensionswere very heightened, during the actual hostilities that weretaking place in Afghanistan, and not too long after the tragedieswith the World Trade Center,” Schneider said. “Our hopeis that tensions have cooled now and calmer minds will prevail,and in that kind of atmosphere, we can actually reach out to peoplewho are not at the polar extremes, those people who might be sortof in the middle.”

Sierra’s homemade T-shirts bore anarchy symbols and phrasespromoting peace. The shirt that got her into trouble bore thephrase: “When I saw the dead and dying Afghani children onTV, I felt a newly recovered national sense of security. God BlessAmerica.”

As part of the “Tinker Days” series, Sierra and JohnTinker, one of the students involved in the 1965 protest in DesMoines, will speak jointly on Feb. 26 at Huntington High Schooland Marshall University. Students at Huntington, which has theonly high school ACLU chapter in West Virginia, will receive wallet-sizedcards outlining their rights.

Sierra’s controversial T-shirt and one of the black armbandsworn in the 1965 Des Moines protest will be on display in theSissonville public library on Feb. 28, where members of the schoolboard, students and members the public are expected to debateher case.

Some Kanawha County school board members criticized the ACLUand the Sissonville library for having the program.

A Kanawha County Circuit Court judge in November denied Sierra’spreliminary injunction against the school. Sierra and the ACLUwill return to court on June 24.

“Until then we have this opportunity to try to win overpublic opinion,” Schneider said. “So the first stepis to win in the court of public opinion, then we win in the courtof law.”