A Ripple Effect in Reg. 10 Flap
By Emily M. Olson
Litchfield County Times
LITCHFIELD - When Litchfield journalist Andy Thibault heard about Avery Doninger, a 17-year-old student at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington who was punished by school administrators for critical statements she made in a blog on an Internet Web page, he was outraged.
And when the situation became a legal battle involving the student's First Amendment rights, he was disgusted and angry and wanted to do something.
Now he's using that energy to help the Doninger family raise money to pay its continuing legal expenses to fight the Region 10 school district by organizing a fund-raiser at the Bistro East at the Litchfield Inn.
On Oct. 14, "Poets and Writers for Avery: A Free Speech Festival" will be held involving Mr. Thibault's writer friends, including Wally Lamb, Ravi Shankar, Amy Ma, Franz Douskey, Rand Cooper, Jon Andersen, Ron Winter, Margo Schilpp, Oscar de los Santos and Luis Colavecchi. Five local bands have also been invited to perform.
"I called my friends and colleagues and I said, 'Hey, this is going on,' and I told them what these school officials were doing to this kid," Mr. Thibault said during a telephone interview Tuesday. "And they said, 'We've got to stand up for this courageous young woman.' They didn't hesitate."
Mr. Thibault explained that Avery decided to sue Region 10 Superintendent of Schools Paula Schwartz and Lewis Mills principal Karissa Niehoff this summer, after they "barred her from running for class secretary because she called administrators 'douchebags' in an online blog entry in April.
"Avery claims they violated her First Amendment right to free speech by reprimanding her for the posting," he continued. "The U.S. District Court in New Haven, on Aug. 31, denied an injunction sought by Avery that would have forced the school district to redo last spring's class election with her included on the ballot. The court asserted that schools can punish students in scenarios like this as they see fit."
The student wants an apology for her civil rights violation and to be allowed to serve as co-class secretary with the student who won the spring election -- the election in which she was not allowed to participate.
"When I heard about this, I spoke with Avery's mom first, and I posted some blogs about it," Mr. Thibault said. "I was overwhelmed by the tyranny of this administration, so I resolved that something must be done to combat this incompetence and oppression."
Avery, he said, is now appealing to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City. To do that, Mr. Thibault said, the single-parent family of three children needs money.
"If we could raise about $20,000, that would be great," he said.
Costs for the Oct. 14 benefit are being covered by former Connecticut Poet Laureate Marilyn Nelson, author Howard Zinn, poet Elizabeth Thomas, writer Suzanne Davis and business owner Raj Patel. That way, Mr. Thibault said, the donation for admission of $25 or more per person can go to Avery's legal fees fund.
Attorney Jon Schoenhorn, who is representing Avery, said the Doningers had filed their appeal to the Aug. 31 decision on Sept. 10.
"We've just been assigned a docket number and we'll be seeking an expedited appeal, and the defendants are objecting to that, for obvious reasons," he said. "The first amendment implications are so crucial, on free speech, that it requires speedy consideration by the court of appeals."
He agreed that the costs are high for this type of case. "The Doningers are playing all of the costs of this case, the transcripts, costs of the appeals, things like that," Mr. Schoenhorn said. "The court just applied a cash bond to make this financially costly to them [Avery's family] -- they're spending the region's money by the tens of thousands, and by doing that, they're hoping to make it financially difficult for the Doningers."
It's a financial strain for a single mom," he said. "Even though she works full-time, she's got three children, two besides Avery. It's not easy for anyone."
Avery, who was at school and getting ready to perform at the Big E in Springfield, Mass., this week, said she was overwhelmed by the support she has received.
"I am really excited for the fundraiser," she said. "Hopefully it will capture more people's interest. It is something that everyone should be aware of because it no longer just affects me, but the outcome of this case will affect everyone."
Her mother, Lauren Doninger, said Wednesday that she and Avery appreciate the financial aid they're receiving, because they want to see the case through to the end.
"Our concern is, if we don't raise the money for the fees, we can't see it all the way through, and we need to do that," she said. "It's because this ruling is incredibly chilling to free speech, and it's not a ruling that people should take lightly. [Journalist] Chris Matthews just devoted a whole show to the erosion of civil liberties -- it's a huge issue. We're just really overwhelmed by the support Andy has generated."
While Ms. Doninger didn't condone her daughter's choice of words on her blog entries, she didn't feel others should be involved in discipline issues when it came to her own child.
"What people are reacting to is that this is a very dangerous precedent that's being set," she said. I don't like my daughter to use this language -- but it's my job to parent her. If we allow the government to step into our homes and set perimeters, we're on a very slippery slope. This is about freedom of speech and it's so fundamentally American."
Ms. Doninger also encouraged people to attend the fundraiser to enjoy themselves. "We hope it's going to be a lot of fun," she said.
Mr. Thibault is also looking forward to the gathering at the Litchfield Inn.
"We'll have a great time and we're doing something that's important," he said. "It's like a 'Field of Dreams,' -- if you stand up, people will help out."
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 860-690-0211 for information and tickets.
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