"I believe that each citizen is responsible for participating in the maintenance of democracy by challenging government officials when they overreach."
-- Avery Doninger
Scales of Justice
By AVERY DONINGER
This year I have come to understand why liberty and justice are symbolized with scales. There is much to be balanced and decisions can weigh heavy. Since May 2007, a series of good and bad decisions, made not only by me, but also by others, has led me on a journey filled with risk and rich in learning opportunities.
The first decision that I made reflected positively on my character. I invested myself fully in student government and worked diligently in my elected positions. Frustrated over scheduling snags and short-notice cancellation of a school event (Jamfest), I went home and posted a blog on an obscure Live Journal page. In the blog I encouraged people to petition our administration -- a good decision; it was political speech. The bad decision was the opening line, "Jamfest is cancelled due to the douchebags in central office." Not my finest moment.
Along with other student leaders I rallied community support for Jamfest and the event was rescheduled. However, my decision to use an unsavory term was still sitting out there on the scales of justice, waiting to be weighed. A month after the scheduling was resolved, an administrator stumbled across my blog. Consequently, the principal punished me. She said I had to apologize to the superintendent, tell my mother, step down from all leadership positions, and withdraw my candidacy for secretary of the Class of 2008 (I had been secretary for three years). This was when the lessons from my civics class became increasingly relevant to my life. I agreed to the principal's first two requirements, but I refused the third.
The school administrator's had their own scales of justice -- my opinion did not tip the balance, and the punishment was final. Efforts to negotiate with the administrators were refused. A write-in campaign by my peers (I won a plurality of votes) was ignored; and "Team Avery, Support LSM Freedom of Speech" t-shirts were confiscated (illegal according to Tinker). As I researched civil rights and school law, my scale tipped, and I filed a lawsuit. This was a hard decision; I've never been in trouble: I am an engaged student, yet I did use an unsavory word. My mother also put my word choice on her scale of justice. She found my comment rude, sophomoric, and below the standards she has set. My mother's verdict, as one commentator put it, "Avery, you're grounded and we're going to the Supreme Court" (Colin McEnroe, October 2, 2007, WTIC am 1080).
At age 16 I became a citizen fully engaged in the democratic process. I filed for injunctive relief: not suing for money but for justice. I testified for four hours in federal court; I have done tons of print and broadcast interviews; I have spoken to large audiences about my story and the First Amendment rights; and I was the poster child for Poets and Writers for Free Speech. I have learned the big cases decided by the Supreme Court as well as how my case is distinguished. Most important, however, are the lessons that have become apart of me.
I believe in democracy. I believe in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I believe that each citizen is responsible for participating in the maintenance of democracy by challenging government officials when they overreach. The principal accused me of a failing to be a good citizen. I disagree. Apathy and passivity are poor citizenship. Rallying students and the community to petition the government is good citizenship. I failed at vocabulary, not citizenship. However, the First Amendment does not limit protection to those with sophisticated vocabularies (though I will not make the error of rudeness again).
Democracy is a gift that Americans have inherited, but it requires maintenance and vigilance. Democracy needs to be retained at the lowest levels if we are to have a democracy at the highest levels. If as citizens we refuse to defend liberty in our own backyards, how do we expect to bring democracy to Iraq or Korea or any place suffering under tyranny? Civil liberties are eroded slowly when citizens don't bother to insist on challenging unconstitutional practices. Citizens, particularly students who are the next generation of leaders, must be willing to take on the responsibility of maintaining and protecting democracy while enjoying the rights democracy affords.
Eventually, the scales of justice will determine whether students have speech rights off campus in the age of the Internet and whether there is a difference between shouldn't have said and didn't have the right to say. No matter the outcome in court, I am proud that I was willing to engage in the democratic and judicial processes. I will continue to defend civil rights, to think critically, and to consider the ramifications of my word choices. While I don't plan to live my life according to bumper stickers, I am going to think globally and act locally.
Following is a Readers Digest version
of the Doninger case:
Avery Doninger, a volunteer in the Americorps national public service program, has a civil rights trial pending in New Haven U.S. District Court. [Among her duties on the job: helping hurricane victims in Texas.]
Avery, a 2008 graduate of Lewis Mills High School in Burlington, CT, and her mother, Lauren Doninger, sued Principal Karissa Niehoff and Superintendent Paula Schwartz [now retired] after they removed Avery from the ballot for class secretary.
Avery Doninger was among a group of four students who lobbied the community for support of an annual battle of the bands sponsored by the Student Council. The student council adviser suggested the students reach out to taxpayers and the students copied the adviser an on email to the community.
Schwartz became very upset after taxpayers called her and she cancelled the event known as Jamfest. Doninger subsequently referred to administrators in a live journal blog as central office douche bags, and Schwartz's son found the posting while trolling the internet for his mother a couple weeks later. While Avery Doninger was banned from school office, another student who called Schwartz a dirty whore was given an award and lauded for citizenship.
School officials suppressed the write-in vote in which Doninger was elected by a plurality. Schwartz refused to accept Doninger's apology for her choice of words. During an assembly, Niehoff banned free-speech and Team Avery t-shirts and seized at least one shirt.
The Doningers have been seeking -- among other remedies -- an apology for civil rights violations and recognition of the write-in victory.
New Haven U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz denied a motion for a preliminary injunction [immediate relief] in August 2007. Based on errors in the record, Travesty Kravitz's injunction ruling was upheld by the U.S. Second Circuit in New York.
Travesty Kravitz held a hearing in November 2008 on Doninger's request for a trial. He cut off discussion about various frauds - including false testimony - upon the court and ultimately ordered a trial on Jan. 15, 2009. But, he limited the scope of the trial to the narrow issue of the suppression and seizure of free speech t-shirts.
Appeals are likely on a number of rulings narrowing the scope of the case.
On Jan. 22, 2009, Connecticut State Senator Gary LeBeau filed a landmark bill to protect student speech.
On Jan. 23, 2009, Travesty Kravitz scheduled jury selection and a trial for civil rights violations related to the suppression and seizure of free speech t-shirts.