Katie Sierra suspension controversy
|Date||October 23, 2001– July 12, 2002|
|Location||Pocatalico, West Virginia|
Kanawha County Board of Education
|Outcome||Controversy becomes international cause célèbre, focused on student rights, anarchism, the post–September 11 anti-war movement, and the new sociopolitical landscape of post-9/11 American society.|
|Verdict||Judgment in favor of the plaintiff awards Katie Sierra with symbolic $1 in damages; state refuses further appeals.|
The Katie Sierra suspension controversy began in October 2001 when high school student Katie Sierra was suspended from Sissonville High School for her activism in opposition to the bombing of Afghanistan. The fifteen-year old Sierra was engaged in anti-war activism at her school, near Charleston, West Virginia, wearing clothes with handwritten messages objecting to U.S. militarism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. She applied for permission to start an anarchist club at the school, and was denied by the school's principal. Her attempts at publicizing the club led to her being suspended from school for three days. Incendiary comments by the principal and the members of the school board were reported in the press and provoked a controversy that garnered national and international media attention.
Following verbal and physical assaults by Sierra's fellow students, her mother withdrew her from the school and, with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, they initiated legal action against the headmaster and the school board. Initially unsuccessful and subject to various setbacks, these efforts eventually succeeded in overturning the school's decision not to allow the club, although the propriety of other actions by the school was upheld. Sierra briefly returned to Sissonville High in August 2002 before again withdrawing over peer harassment after less than a week. The actions and attitude of the school toward Sierra were sharply criticized in the media for what critics perceived as censorship and McCarthyism, as a dark sign of post–September 11th American society and its concept of freedom of speech.
Background and suspension
Katie Sierra was born in Panama into a military family; her father served in the U.S. Army and was later a contractor employee of the military, in which two of her uncles also served. During Sierra's childhood, her family moved around frequently; prior to attending Sissonville High School in Pocatalico, West Virginia (a community near Charleston), she had attended eleven schools and lived in Panama, New Mexico, Ohio and Kentucky.
Sierra identified as an anarchist-pacifist opposed to all violence and advocating "a peaceful revolution". In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, she was taken aback by the wave of "flag-waving", increasing patriotism and "blind, unthinking" advocacy of war on the part of her fellow students, who she believed ignored existing problems such as racism and homophobia. Although described as a "good student with no history of behavioral problems", she soon became embroiled in a controversy at the Charleston-area high school. On October 23, 2001 Sierra asked the school's principal, Forrest Mann, if she could start an anarchist club at the school, after reading about the subject on Infoshop.org. Among the possible club activities she mentioned were reading and discussion groups and community service, while flyers for the club also proposed starting a zine (called the Anny) and a chapter of Food Not Bombs. The club's manifesto declared "[t]his anarchist club will not tolerate hate or violence…It is our final goal to dispel myths about anarchism, especially the belief that anarchy is chaos and destruction". Without reading Sierra's literature, Mann refused to grant permission for such a club in the school, and according to Sierra had to ask her several times to return to class when he would not explain his decision.
To my students…the concept of anarchy is something that is evil and bad.
Sierra attended class wearing T-shirts with handwritten political slogans, a practice she claimed to have adopted long before the September 11, 2001 attacks: among the messages written on the T-shirts were "Against Bush, Against Bin Laden" and "When I saw the dead and dying Afghani children on TV, I felt a newly recovered sense of national security. God bless America." Classmates of Sierra informed reporters of their intention to give her a taste of "West Virginia justice". After reading the back of Sierra's T-shirt, fellow student and aspirant U.S. Marine Jacob Reed allegedly told her, "If you don't like this country, then fucking leave", and was subsequently detained. The day of the incident, Mann summoned Sierra to his office and told her she would no longer be allowed to wear the shirts, and claimed that Sierra had violated his prior orders by making flyers for the club available to other students. Mann suspended her for three days, on the charge of disrupting the education of her fellow students.
The suspended Sierra then contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, who agreed to take up her cause. The issue was considered settled after a meeting between Sierra, the ACLU, Sierra's mother and Mann, until a meeting of the school's board of education on October 29, the day of Sierra's return to school. The meeting discussed the events of the previous week, and some board members were initially sympathetic to Sierra. However, comments turned hostile towards the end of the meeting, with Sierra being told "[t]his isn't something funny or cute…[y]ou're talking about overthrowing the government", and having her actions characterized as "like you stood up and waved a Japanese flag on Pearl Harbor day". In reference to Sierra, president of the board Bill Raglin asked "[w]hat the hell is wrong with a kid like that?" and board member John Luoni accused Sierra of committing treason. Sierra fled the meeting in tears. The following day, The Charleston Gazette published comments by Mann to the effect that the messages on Sierra's T-shirts included "I hope Afghanistan wins" and "America should burn."; Mann later claimed he had been misquoted, and that he had taken his information from Jacob Reed. Students spat on Sierra's mother's car at Sissonville High, and her friends' parents wouldn't give her rides home from school. Threats, taunting, jeering by her fellow students escalated into physical assaults, and Sierra's mother pulled her out of school; the threats would ultimately cause Sierra to move out of the town. Sierra voiced her belief that people at Sissonville High were permitted to talk about how they felt about certain things, so long as there were others who agreed with them. She denied being anti-American, and that anarchism implies support for terrorism, countering that it is an anti-authoritarian and non-violent philosophy.
As like any war I think it's wrong. I don't believe in fighting and last time I checked war is included. I don't know or have an answer for the war, but I do know that killing people is not right. I think our country is just too lazy to think of another solution.
Initial filing of lawsuit
The ACLU filed a suit on Sierra's behalf on December 9, 2001 against the school district and Mann, but the suspension was immediately upheld in the Kanawha County circuit court. Sierra's pro bono lawyers claimed that Mann was responsible for disruption, and that he could have taken the opportunity to teach his students about tolerance and constitutional rights instead of making misleading and incendiary comments in the media. The defense countered by saying constitutional rights did not apply equally to adults and students, with the latter not having the same latitude with regards to freedom of speech. Judge James Stucky rejected Sierra's request for a preliminary injunction on November 2, citing her voluntary withdrawal from the county school system, but scheduled a jury trial for her lawsuit for June 24. Stucky ruled that while Sierra was free to believe what she wanted and to express those beliefs, those rights were "not absolute" in a school setting and that the disruption she had caused there overrode her right to free speech. Stucky further declared that he could not guarantee her safety at Sissonville High School. The West Virginia Supreme Court voted 3-2 on November 27 against considering Sierra's petition to prevent the lower court from "continuing to deny her freedom of speech".
Motivated by boredom and antipathy towards what she saw as the "backward…narrow-minded…racist and sexist" residents of Charleston, Sierra ran away from home on April 8, 2002. Accompanied by a 24-year-old friend, Holly Elizabeth Taylor, she hitched rides with truckers to Raleigh, North Carolina. There, the self-proclaimed "road sisters" took in a concert by Tanya Donelly, whose attempts to convince them to turn back were futile. Although Sierra successfully eluded the police, Taylor was discovered by Sierra's mother and a private detective she had hired, forcing Sierra to continue alone to South Carolina where she stayed with a friend. Her mother and the private detective tracked her down after tracing her phone calls to friends, and they returned to West Virginia. Commenting on the escapade, Sierra declared "You're never free. You're always trapped. This is a corrupt society. I'm paranoid to even use the phone anymore."
The ACLU lawyers decided to drop their suit on June 5 of that year after learning that Sierra had moved out of her mother's home and intended on traveling through Oregon, and therefore would not be present at the trial date. A day later, they reversed their decision after consulting with Sierra's mother, who had to file the suit on behalf of her daughter (a minor at the time).
At the trial, Sierra's former English teacher Jean McCutcheon testified that Sierra's activities at Sissonville High had caused a "simmering feeling", and that she had counseled Sierra that it was a "terrible time in history" to start a club such as the one proposed. Jacob Reed, the student who had been detained for his comments to Sierra, testified that the "only reason" for Sierra's actions was that she "wants attention". He also claimed that Sierra told him she hoped America would lose the War in Afghanistan, and asked why Sierra was opposed to what he saw as "pretty much payback" for the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Jason Huber, one of Sierra's lawyers, proposed that Principal Mann had missed "a great teaching moment for the students at Sissonville High School", declaring that "instead of teaching them about the Constitution, he was teaching them intolerance. He praised Sierra's critical thinking and readiness to challenge authority, calling her "the kind of student we want", and arguing that "popular speech, acceptable speech, does not need protection,… [y]ou don't shed that right at the schoolhouse door." Representing the Kanawha County Board of Education, lawyer Gary Pullin tried to convince jurors of the necessity of limiting individual rights on occasions where freedom of expression interfered with education, justifying Mann's actions as a response to the distress of some students at the school at Sierra's conduct and appearance. Pullin asserted that "the mood and atmosphere of [Mann's] school changed" after the September 11, 2001 attacks, with an "increased polarization and a mood of rising anger" dividing the student body between a patriotic majority loyal to the government and "a small group of students ... who opposed the patriotic movement". "The mere suggestion", he proposed, of an anarchist club "resulted in significant disruptions in the classroom and congregations in the halls … [i]t took over Sissonville High School." He acknowledged that students had threatened Sierra with "West Virginia justice", crediting Mann for protecting Sierra in this regard.
The philosophy of anarchism was also a point of contention during the trial. Gordon Simmons, an adjunct professor of philosophy at West Virginia State University and Marshall University, testified as Sierra's final witness. His testimony included explanations of the philosophy espoused by Sierra's proposed club, its impact on American social and political movements, and the notion that anarchists had historically been unjustly persecuted in American courts, citing such examples as the trials of the Haymarket affair and Sacco and Vanzetti. The lawyer for the school officials countered that anarchism had prominent ties to terrorism and assassination, and referred to Timothy McVeigh and Theodore Kaczynski as anarchists. On July 12, the court ruled that Sierra had been justly suspended and forbidden to wear the T-shirts, but had been improperly denied the right to start a club, and awarded her the $1 in damages she sought. Attorneys for both Kanawha County and Sierra asked that those parts of the verdict that went against their client, requesting that Kanawha Chief Circuit Judge James C. Stucky throw out the jury's verdict, finding it to be inconsistent, and that he rule himself instead.
The ban on her right to return to the school having been lifted, Sierra returned to Sissonville High in August 2002. In her first week back at the school, she was harassed, mocked and insulted by other students. Sissonville had by this point a new principal, Calvin McKinney who replaced Forrest Mann after the latter resigned from the school system following the controversy. McKinney identified Sierra's "questionable attire" – a T-shirt of punk band Anti-Flag – as a possible trigger of her negative reception. Although she had secured a sponsor for the anarchist club, McKinney did not grant his approval, citing the need for a lengthy legal confirmation process. After attending Sissonville High for five days, Sierra dropped out of the school. Judge Stucky subsequently ruled that she would be allowed sit General Educational Development tests (which would allow her to apply for university) in lieu of finishing high school.
Reaction to controversy
The controversy over Sierra's suspension and the subsequent trial drew local, national and international media attention. Initial reaction to Sierra's actions from the local media was unsympathetic. This was later attributed by Sierra's lawyers and Dan Radmacher – editor of the Charleston Gazette – to Principal Mann's repetition in his comments to the Gazette of Jacob Reed's statements concerning Sierra's message. Sierra claims that callers to local radio stations "wanted to shoot me in the head. They wanted to send me to another country." The Charleston Daily Mail praised Mann's decision, calling Sierra's "thoroughly egocentric exercise" of her constitutional rights "tiresome". The Daily Mail expanded on its position in a July 15, 2002 editorial; while noting Justice Lewis Powell's declaration that full constitutional rights did not apply equally in school as in criminal justice, the paper commented that "students do have rights as long as they are not disrupting the education of others", and that while Sierra's request to form an anarchist club "may have seemed bizarre and even oxymoronic", Principal Mann ought to have permitted it "since it would not harm or impinge upon the rights of others". It went on to praise the jury's decision that Sierra had no constitutional right to wear her T-shirts to class or to disobey the authority of Mann but that she did have the right to express her opinions after class, calling it "the essence of Americanism … a great system that makes anarchy look silly".
In a July 30, 2002 editorial for the Gazette, retired West Virginia State College economist Aaron Metz identified two issues arising from the affair; freedom of speech and "freedom from fear", writing "Freedom of speech suffers in an environment of fear. Katie was afraid to go to school because law and order ceased to exist there." Metz observed that the story had caught the attention of Poles, some of whom wanted Sierra to come and study in their country, and to the Japanese, whose response he called "more irrational", saying they "didn't want her; they just wanted to get that T-shirt in their hands" and were "making fun of West Virginia, a state 50th in education, for expelling a good student - a sort of sideshow using Katie and her T-shirt on TV for entertainment". In the context of adult control of adolescent expression, a December 2003 editorial in the Gazette wrote that the Sissonville High's administrators "overreacted" in Sierra's case, feeding a backlash against the student instead of "taking advantage of her youthful energy and curiosity to craft meaningful civics lessons".
National and international
National and international observers were supportive of Sierra and sharply critical of the actions of the state. John Tinker, of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, pledged his support for Sierra, personally emailing her to encourage her and offered to attend further court proceedings. Sierra reported, "he said he'd be in the front row of the courtroom..." Crispin Sartwell, a journalist, individualist anarchist and philosophy professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, praised Sierra as "an American hero", and her actions as "contributions to rather than disruptions of the educational process". Of her suspension, Sartwell wrote, "The notion that truth is reached by the repression of dissent is the kind of claptrap that is believed - or at least implemented - by dictators and high school administrators." In a July 28, 2002 article for California's Contra Costa Times, Sartwell wrote that Sierra's T-shirts "were contributions to, rather than disruptions of, the educational process", and made the comment "That a jury could support the decision of Sissonville High School's sad little martinets only shows how wide is the incomprehension with which some basic Americans regard basic American principles."
British political writer George Monbiot decried Sierra's treatment, citing it as an example of state persecution and the erosion of civil liberties in the United States, while journalist Amy Goodman characterized it as evidence of "a new McCarthyism". Charles C Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, also situated the controversy in the context of the freedom of expression debate, criticising the school for allowing a "heckler's veto" to censor Sierra and the school district for spending "more than US$75,000 fighting to keep her quiet". A New York University drama project investigating post-9/11 America composed a theater piece, United We Stand, inspired by Sierra's actions. The Thomas Jefferson Center, an organization dedicated to the protection of freedom of expression, highlighted the controversy in 2002 and awarded the Kanawha school board and principal Forest Mann with their annual "Jefferson Muzzle" award. Highlighting a quote by Katie Sierra ("There are many types of anarchy. I want us to unite as one instead of having some government over top of us.") the center wrote, "While school officials have the authority to prevent disruption of school activities, such authority should not be used as a pretext to stifle expression with which they disagree. Moreover, a high school student who shows an active interest in the important issues of the day and who takes the initiative to form a club to pursue that interest should be commended."
Sierra was one of the "heroes" of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dale Maharidge's Homeland, an examination of the mind-set behind the United States' alleged post-9/11 jingoism and suppression of dissent. Portraying her as an unconventional and "good-hearted kid," Maharidge reported that Sierra took a telemarketing job following the cessation of the controversy: "She was supposed to make two sales a day. The first day, she made five sales, and continued at that rate. When I again talked with her in the winter, she was living in a dorm and attending Marshall University in West Virginia. She was happy and her only complaint was that the classes were too easy."
- Student activism
- Student rights
- Opposition to the War in Afghanistan (2001–present)
- Protests against the War in Afghanistan (2001–present)
- Post–September 11 anti-war movement
- Eyre, Eric (May 20, 2003). "State refuses Sierra appeal". Charleston Gazette (Daily Gazette Company).
- Fuentes, Annette (2004-06-30). "Whose Homeland Is It?". In These Times (Institute For Public Affairs). Retrieved 2008-03-22.
- West Virginia high court won't intervene in pro-anarchy teen's case from the Associated Press 28 November 2001
- "Student files lawsuit over anarchy club". West Virginia News/Associated Press. 2001-10-31. Archived from the original on 2001-12-10. Retrieved 2008-03-22.
- Bissett, Jim. "Democracy isn't always pretty". The Dominion Post.
- "Teen anarchist sues school principal". Court TV (Courtroom Television Network LLC.). 2002-09-17. Archived from the original on 2008-03-28. Retrieved 2008-03-22.
- "Infoshop Interviews - Katie Sierra". Infoshop.org. Archived from the original on 2007-04-19. Retrieved 2008-03-22.
- Monbiot, George (2001-12-18). "The Taliban of the west". The Guardian (Guardian Media Group). Retrieved 2008-03-22.
- Westheimer, Joel. "Patriotism and Education". Phi Delta Kappan 87 (8): 608. ISSN 0031-7217.
- "Teen vows court battle over anti-war stance". The Washington Times (News World Communications). November 3, 2001.
- Colby, Michael (2001-11-07). "School Girl Gets the Boot for Anti-War Opinions". CounterPunch. Retrieved 2008-03-22.
- "West Virginia: Anarchist Teen Pulled From School". Associated Press. 2001-11-27.
- Wax, Emily (2001-12-09). "The Consequences of Objection". The Washington Post (The Washington Post Company). Retrieved 2008-03-22.
- Crumm, David (2004-09-04). "Author finds anger spreading across America". The Providence Journal (Knight Ridder Newspapers). Retrieved 2008-03-22.
- Saxton, Michelle (2001-11-01). "Student loses bid to form high school anarchy club". Associated Press/South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Tribune Company). Archived from the original on 2006-12-06. Retrieved 2008-03-22.
- "Teenage anarchist to seek only $1". Associated Press. 2002-06-22.
- Eyre, Eric (2001-12-06). "‘You have some decisions to make,' judge tells Sierra". Charleston Gazette (Daily Gazette Company).
- Eyre, Eric (2002-04-18). "Teen back home after hitchhiking to South Carolina". Charleston Gazette (Daily Gazette Company).
- Stirewalt, Chris (2002-06-20). "Lawsuit Will Continue without Katie Sierra". Charleston Daily Mail.
- Stone, Greg (2001-11-29). "Anarchy story a hit in Japan". Charleston Gazette (Daily Gazette Company).
- Messina, Laurence (2002-07-13). "Katie Sierra gets mixed verdict in suspension case". Charleston Gazette (Daily Gazette Company).
- Stirewalt, Chris (2002-07-11). "Katie Sierra Focused on Rights". Charleston Daily Mail.
- Hodel, Martha Bryson (July 12, 2002). "Jury begins deliberating in student's free-speech lawsuit". The Associated Press State & Local Wire.
- Messina, Laurence (2002-07-10). "Sierra jury hears two views of anarchy". Charleston Gazette (Daily Gazette Company).
- "Teen anarchist sues school principal". Court TV (Courtroom Television Network LLC.). 2002-08-27. Retrieved 2008-03-22.
- "Attorneys on both sides ask judge to throw out anarchy verdict". The Associated Press State & Local Wire. August 10, 2002.
- Bott, Rachelle (August 10, 2002). "Sierra, school lawyers ask for ruling Jury inconsistent, both sides say". Charleston Gazette.
- Hafenbrack, Josh; Smith, Carrie (2002-09-13). "Teen anarchist leaves Sissonville". Charleston Daily Mail.
- Mallory, Anna L. (2006-03-23). "Ex-principal at Sissonville hired as adviser at Hoover.". Charleston Gazette (Daily Gazette Company). "Mann retired from the school system in 2002 after his decision to suspend then 15-year-old student Katie Sierra"
- Jarvis, Melanie (March 13, 2003). "Judge to let Sierra get her GED, Teen to appear on talk show about controversial teens". Charleston Daily Mail.
- Radmacher, Dan (2002-06-12). "Who were the real sophomores in the Katie Sierra case?". Charleston Gazette (Daily Gazette Company).
- Walker, Jesse (February 2002). "Club Anarchy: Why high school sucks". Reason (Reason Foundation). Retrieved 2008-03-22. "The local Charleston Daily Mail praised the decision, arguing that "Americans cherish the freedoms guaranteed them under the Constitution, but the thoroughly egocentric exercise of those rights becomes tiresome.""
- Dmedit (July 15, 2002). "Our views". Charleston Daily Mail.
- Metz, Aaron (July 30, 2002). "Freedom of speech". Charleston Gazette.
- Gzedit (December 30, 2003). "Free speech: Even students have rights". Charleston Gazette.
- "John Tinker pledges support for pro-anarchy teen". First Amendment Center/Associated Press. 2001-12-01. Retrieved 2008-03-22.
- Sartwell, Crispin. "Katie Sierra, American Hero". Crispinsartwell.com. Retrieved 2009-03-06.
- Sartwell, Crispin (July 28, 2002). "Education should not silence thoughts, ideas". Contra Costa Times.
- Sierra, Katie (2001-12-11). "When I Saw the Dead and Dying Afghani Children On TV, I Felt a Newly Recovered Sense Of National Security. God Bless America" ­ High School Suspends a 15-Year-Old Student for Anti-War T-Shirt". Interview with Amy Goodman. War and Peace. Democracy Now!. Retrieved 2008-03-22.
- Haynes, Charles C. (October 14, 2002). "Inside the First Amendment: In climate of fear, people are being punished for speaking out". Gannett Company. Gannett News Service.
- Graeber, Laurel (2002-07-12). "Family Fare". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). Retrieved 2008-03-22.
- "Jefferson Muzzles: About the Awards". Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. Retrieved 2010-07-24.
- Canfield, Kevin (2004-08-08). "Emblems of a nation of discontent and dissent". San Francisco Chronicle (Hearst Communications Inc.). Retrieved 2008-03-22.
- Sissonville High School
- Proposed manifesto of Sierra's Anarchist Club
- Image of the Anarchist Club flyer
- Justice for Katie Sierra network site by Ernesto Aguilar, hosted on Illegalvoices.org. Archived on April 17, 2003.
Katie Sierra interviews
- Sierra interview with Infoshop.org, December 10, 2001
- Sierra interview with Democracy Now!, December 11, 2001
- Anicich, Ron (December 13, 2001). "Interview With Katie Sierra". Please Kill Me (CKLN-FM).
- Rothschild, Matthew (January 2002). "The New McCarthyism". The Progressive.
- Burquest, Bret (September 25, 2002). "Anarchy in West Virginia". Areawidenews.com. [Revised: Burquest, Bret (May 9, 2009). "Anarchy in West Virginia". Areawidenews.com.]