Jury says W.Va. student can form anarchy club at school

WEST VIRGINIA — Upholding the U.S. Supreme Court’s stanceon anti-war expression, a jury ruled July 12 that Katie Sierra’sattempts to start an anarchy club at Sissonville High School couldnot be quashed. Despite their conclusion, the jury also supportedher suspension for wearing a T-shirt with anti-war messages.

The jury awarded 15-year-old Sierra $1 in damages aftershe was suspended for three days in October for promoting herproposed club with fliers. Sierra also wore a T-shirt with hand-writtenmessages protesting America’s military operations in Afghanistan.

"When I saw the dead and dying Afghani children on TV,I felt a newly recovered sense of national security," theshirt read.

Sierra filed suit in October 2001, more than three decadesafter the landmark Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. DesMoines that upheld students’ freedom to express anti-war sentimentsin school.

American Civil Liberties Union leaders believe that Sierra should be afforded the samerights granted to the three Iowa students who wore black armbandsto school to protest the Vietnam War. The 1969 decision declaredthat students and teachers do not "shed their constitutionalrights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gates."

Hoping to draw a parallel between the two cases, Sierra andJohn Tinker, one of the students involved in the 1965 protest,spoke jointly at a series of schools on Feb. 26 as part of the"Tinker Days" series celebrating 33 years since theoriginal verdict. Sierra’s T-shirt and one of the armbands fromthe Tinker case were also on display at the Sissonville PublicLibrary.

In November, a Kanawha County Circuit Court judge denied apreliminary injunction sought by Sierra. The case returned tothe court for trial July 8.

In line with the Tinker ruling, the jury decided thatthe club could not be ousted from the campus because of its intentto promote anarchy. The jury, however, also agreed with the schooldistrict’s argument that the messages on the shirt disrupted otherstudents’ education in the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere.

"[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," said Andrew Schneider, executivedirector of the West Virginia ACLU chapter.

Roger Forman, Sierra’s attorney, said he would challenge thejury’s decision upholding Sierra’s suspension in post-trial motions,but that the minor details did not detract from the larger issue.

"Those really don’t matter as much," Forman said."We won the big free-speech issue. Post-[Sept. 11], a juryin Kanawha County said, ‘Don’t mess with our speech.’ I thinkthat’s very significant."

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