N.M. school district pays $205,000 in settlement with ex-poetry club adviser

NEW MEXICO — A former adviser of a high school poetry club hopes to establish a free speech foundation with a portion of a $205,000 settlement he will receive from Rio Rancho Public Schools.

The school district has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed in September by Bill Nevins, a humanities teacher who coached the writing and poetry clubs, that alleged his teaching contract was not renewed because of his students’ anti-war poetry.

“I hope that the youthful voices of poetry and the voices of the disadvantaged, the dissident and the dispossessed among us will continue to sing out without fear of censorship and intimidation in Rio Rancho, throughout New Mexico and everywhere,” Nevins said. “I pray that those voices may lead us all towards lasting justice and peace.”

District officials did not admit any guilt in the case and insisted that Nevins never had a First Amendment case.

Jerry Walz, an attorney for the school district, said the First Amendment was a “smoke screen,” noting that the student who wrote the poetry was never disciplined and had the school’s support.

One of the instances that Nevins said violated his First Amendment rights was when Principal Gary Tripp stopped Courtney Butler, a poetry team member, from reading her anti-war poem titled “Revolution X” over the school’s intercom. In a letter to the editor published in the Albuquerque Journal, Butler wrote that she did not feel her First Amendment rights were violated and trusts administrators who told her Nevins’ suspension was unrelated to her poem.

“Disciplinary proceedings were initiated against Mr. Nevins more or less at the same time that [the poetry reading] occurred, and he did a very good job trying to tie the two into each other, when in fact, they were not related whatsoever,” Walz said.

Throughout the case, school officials have refused to comment on their reasons for suspending Nevins and then not renewing his teaching contract beyond saying it was a personnel dispute.

Nevins believed it was no coincidence that his teaching contract was not renewed after his students began publicly reading their controversial works, which he encouraged.

The poetry and writing clubs at the school disbanded following Nevins’ initial suspension and had not been reorganized by the end of the 2003-2004 school year.

Still, Eric Sirotkin, a lawyer who represented Nevins, called the settlement a victory and said Nevins was pleased with the outcome.

“This case is a victory for teachers everywhere who, in the current climate of fear, have grown silent in the face of censorship and calls for blind patriotism,” Sirotkin said.

Nevins, who currently teaches journalism at a charter school in Albuquerque, spent the summer holiday travelling the country to organize and participate in poetry readings to support his legal defense. He was supported by the Alliance for Academic Freedom, PEN, an international writers’ organization and the National Writers Union, of which he is a member.

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