Updated Sept. 17, 2002, 10:32 a.m. ET

Teen anarchist sues school principal
Photo
Katie Sierra sued her high school principal, Forrest Mann, for the right to start an anarchy club and express her political views at school.

(Court TV) —"I pledge the grievance to the flag
Of the United State of America
And to the Republicans whom I can't stand
One nation under smog, indespicable
With liberty and justice for some, not all."

When 15-year-old Katie Sierra wore T-shirts bearing this version of the American pledge as well as other sayings that showed her opposition to the war in Afghanistan, teachers and students at her West Virginia High School were outraged.

Some students of Sissonville High School allegedly threatened to give Katie a taste of "West Virginia justice."

Sissonville High School

Though only 15, Katie Sierra had attended over a dozen schools before arriving at Sissonville High School in the fall of 2001 because she moved around a lot with her mother, Amy. Katie, a good student with no history of behavioral problems, says she heard that the West Virginia High School wasn't as liberal as other schools she was used to, and characterizes the students as bigots.

The school's principal, Forrest Mann, suspended Katie for three days and forbid her to wear the controversial shirts, saying that her behavior was "disrupting school activity." Mann says his job is to guarantee students a safe school and good education — which became impossible in the volatile environment resulting from the controversy. Mann also denied Katie's request to start an anarchy club.

Following her suspension, Katie contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which took up her cause. She filed a suit against the school district and Mann, maintaining it was her First Amendment right to wear what she wanted, express her political views and even start the club.

In a symbolic gesture, the suit, which also asks that the school erase the suspension from a record, asks for only $1 in punitive damages.

The case went to trial in July 2002 before a Kanawha County jury and Judge James Stucky.

The Controversy

On the morning of Oct. 23, 2001, Katie asked Mann if she could start an anarchy club, so that like-minded or curious students could gather, have reading and discussion groups and do community service.

She'd spent all weekend working on a Constitution and Manifesto for the club. "This anarchist club will not tolerate hate or violence," says her Manifesto. "It is our final goal to dispel myths about anarchism, especially the belief that anarchy is chaos and destruction."

Forrest Mann didn't look at her literature before rendering his decision that he would not permit such a club in his school. Katie asked him to read the documents, and though he agreed to read them later he said that he wouldn't change his mind.

Katie Sierra's offending T-shirt

According to Katie, she demanded he tell her why, but Mann had to ask her several times to return to class.

Following that meeting, Katie was sitting in third-period English class with a stack of her Anarchy Club flyers sitting on her desk. One or two of the students asked to take a look, and then returned the flyers to Katie.

Katie admits she is an anarchist, but says that while anarchism is often associated with a violent overthrow of government, she is a pacifist. She opposes all violence and advocates "a peaceful revolution." After all, she says, anarchism is about freedom, and violence violates the freedom of others.

At some point, Katie began scribbling her opinions in marker on her T-shirts. She says she'd been wearing her T-shirts long before the day of the terrorist attacks, although she added a few things after the event.

Being a pacifist, she opposed the attacks on Afghanistan. She was also taken aback by the wave of "flag-waving;" students suddenly considering themselves patriots, blindly advocating war without stopping to think. At the same time, says Katie, the students ignored problems right there at home, such as racism and homophobia.

Some of the shirts bore handwritten statements promoting peace or condemning racism. Others were more controversial, such as one with the phrase, "When I saw the dead and dying children in Afghanistan, I felt a newly recovered sense of national security."

Sierra's sign

Another showed a picture of an American flag turned up-side-down with an anarchy symbol drawn through it. Other messages mocked "flag-wavers," those who were swept by patriotism following the September 11th attacks.

But Katie adamantly denies being anti-American "If I didn't love this place, why would I want to change it?" she said.

Fellow student Jacob Reed read the back of Katie's T-shirt and allegedly told her, "If you don't like this country, then f---ing leave."

Reed was sent to the principal's office by the teacher for cursing at Katie and received detention.

Later in the day, Mann called Katie into his office and told her she would no longer be allowed to wear such shirts. Mann also claimed Katie had violated his prior orders by making the flyers available to other students, and placed her on a three-day suspension.

When Katie got home that afternoon, she was angry over Mann's dismissal and went online to contact the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

After a bit of looking around, Katie got in touch with two attorneys doing occasional work with the ACLU of West Virginia. Roger Forman, who at one time was the chairperson of the state ACLU, contacted the school district's attorney. The attorney agreed that Katie should in fact be able to wear her shirts and start her club. At a meeting with Katie, her mother, Forrest Mann, and Roger Forman, the issue was discussed, and things appeared to be settled.

But on Oct. 29, the day Katie returned to school, a Board of Education meeting left the teenager in tears. At the suggestions of a classmate, a member of the student government, Katie attended the meeting so she could address the board about the recent events.

Katie waited almost three hours to speak. Some board members were helpful, suggesting Katie start with a club outside of school and then try again to have the school permit it.

The meeting ended, however, in a harsher tone. "This isn't something funny or cute," said one member. "You're talking about overthrowing the government!" Another

yelled that Katie is a traitor, and suggested that what she is doing is "like you stood up and waved a Japanese flag on Pearl Harbor day."

The president of the school board added, "What the hell is wrong with a kid like that?" Katie left in tears — and her mother says she came away from the meeting appalled at the way her daughter was being treated.

The following day a news article about the meeting appeared in the local newspaper quoting Mann as saying that the statements on Katie's shirts included "I hope Afghanistan wins" and "America should burn." Mann says he was misquoted, and denies making such statements. In addition, Mann says that the statements he did make were based on what Reed told him was on Katie's shirts. The reporter who wrote the article for the Charleston Gazette, however, maintains that he quoted Mann correctly.

When Katie returned to school, she wore a shirt containing handwritten phrases explaining her view of anarchism, inviting students to ask her questions and also instructing others to call the ACLU if their rights were being violated.

Approximately 20 students did ask Katie questions about her viewpoints. But others showed their opposition, with one even spitting on her car. Another group of furious students went to the school's ROTC instructor, warning that they wanted to take Katie out back and give her "West Virginia justice."

Another teacher said some students complained it was unfair to permit Katie's shirts while denying them the right to don their support for the Ku Klux Klan.

Mann once again forbade Katie from wearing her politically motivated shirts.

Fearing for her safety, Katie soon transferred schools.

The Plaintiff's Case

Jason Huber, representing Katie Sierra pro bono along with Roger Forman, says this case comes down to one of our most fundamental constitutional rights.

"Popular speech doesn't need constitutional protection," says Huber. "Unpopular speech does."

Katie Sierra displayed her opinions in a peaceful way, they say. She was yelled at, cursed at, and threatened — yet she remained willing to answer questions and explain her position in a respectful and reasonable manner.

Katie, though, was the one that was disciplined. In other words, say the defense, Forrest Mann punished her for the other students' reaction — not for her own actions. While her opinions may well have been upsetting to some, Huber points out that "free speech" has never been subject to majority rule.

Huber and Forman say the real cause of the "disruption" at Sissonville High was none other than Forrest Mann himself. He could have taken the chance, the attorneys say, to teach his students about tolerance and constitutional rights.

Instead, the principal chose to set an example of narrow-mindedness. In addition, they say, most of the hostility towards Katie Sierra was caused by the newspaper article, in which Forrest Mann quoted Sierra's shirts as saying she hoped America would lose the war, and "should burn." The attorneys say that even accepting Mann's version that he was merely repeating what a student had told him, the statement was blatantly irresponsible, knowing the sensitive situation in his school.

The attorneys are asking that Sierra be allowed to wear her shirts, start her club, and have the suspension taken off her record. They are also asking for a single dollar in damages. "I don't care about money," says Katie. "I just didn't think it was right."

The Defendant's Case

This case, says the defense, is not about free speech. It is about the legally protected right of each West Virginia student to a thorough and efficient education. The principal has the responsibility to ensure that education can proceed and that his students are safe.

The defense team contends that in addition to his professional responsibility, Forrest Mann has the law on his side. The school's student handbook states that, "The United States constitution, the West Virginia constitution, and state and federal laws guarantee certain rights to individual citizens. Students possess many of these same rights. However, certain rights possessed by adult citizens do not extend to students."

Applied to the right to free speech, this limitation means students "have the right to display and wear buttons, armbands, flags, decals, or other badges of symbolic speech or expression, provided this activity does not interfere with the orderly process of the school or with the rights of others."

In the case of Katie Sierra, says the defense, her "speech" clearly interfered both with the orderly process of the school and with the rights of others to a disruption-free education. The issue was discussed in every class, whether Katie was in it or not, and tensions ran so high that one could sense it "just walking down the hall." For Mann and his staff, according to the defense, education was on the back burner — and managing a crisis-situation became the focus.

Mann says that one of the most hurtful and damaging things the school has had to deal with is statements Katie Sierra made to the media, calling her fellow students "racists and homophobes who can't read."

In addition, students reeling after the terror attacks saw their patriotism mocked and their values attacked. Obviously, says Mann, they were angry. He and his staff worked hard at providing an outlet for the emotions, just as they did after the terrorist attacks. Some of the kids may have talked about giving Katie "West Virginia justice," but they didn't. Instead, they went to talk with a teacher about it and he defused the situation — which Mann says is a reflection on the good work of his entire staff.

In one of many written statements by the students, Katie's classmate Meggan Stutler wrote that Katie's actions "greatly saddened me and brought tears to my eyes. I watched as a young lady was permitted to walk down the hallways of Sissonville High School wearing a T-shirt that spoke against American patriotism." Continued Stutler, "As upset as I am, I would not be able to concentrate on my education while my country and everything else that I love is being verbally torn apart." A principal knows his school and its students better than anyone, says the defense, and must have the discretion to act accordingly.

Mann says he has been particularly careful to encourage diversity and an understanding of other cultures. He has initiated classes on topics such as the Holocaust, and has spent large amounts setting up a computer sister school program between Sissonville and a school in Mexico. Mann's school may not be the most diverse, but he denies any problem with prejudice or discrimination.

"I've got good kids," he says, "I've got very good kids."

The Verdict

 
See the proposed club's flyer














 
Read the proposed club's manifesto



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