Monday, October 15, 2007

War on Free Speech in Connecticut


AVERY DONINGER, a senior at Lewis S. Mills High School in Burlington, speaks to reporters Sunday at the Litchfield Inn in Litchfield, where a fundraiser/rally was held in support of her free speech lawsuit against Region 10 school district officials. (CLOE POISSON / October 14, 2007)

Backing Her Stance
Eclectic Mix Of Supporters Rallies Behind High School Senior's Free-Speech Crusade


By DAVE ALTIMARI | Courant Staff Writer
October 15, 2007

LITCHFIELD (Connecticut) - Avery Doninger didn't want to be a First Amendment champion. All she wanted was to be the secretary for the senior class at Lewis S. Mills High School.

But when she called school officials "douchbags" on one of her blogs, they barred her from running for the office. Rather than back down, Doninger fought back, filing a federal lawsuit claiming her right to free speech had been violated.

As a result, she has become a poster child on Internet sites frequented by teenagers all over the country, and, for some local and national media, an example of an individual fighting the establishment.

As her case heads to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan later this year, some of her friends, her family, and author Wally Lamb gathered Sunday at the Litchfield Inn for an event that was part fundraiser, part rally for her cause.

The eclectic mix of 50 to 60 people at the Poets & Writers for Avery gathering included several poets from Connecticut universities and a few teenage rock bands.

All of the poets read pieces or told stories symbolizing Doninger's plight.

Some people wore buttons that said, "First Amendment, Use It Or Lose It," while others wore black T-shirts that said, "Team Avery, We Refuse To Be Silenced."

"I never expected that this was going to end up being so big," Doninger, of Burlington, said between announcing bands and pulling raffle tickets to raise money for her appeal.

But she has no regrets about suing Region 10 school district officials, even though a federal judge in September denied her attempt to get an injunction that would have forced school officials to recognize her as the winner of the race for class secretary.

"I have a lot more appreciation for my rights and for the First Amendment," Doninger said. "This is an issue that needs to be addressed."

Doninger's problems began last April, when school officials decided to cancel a battle of the bands concert called "Jamfest." Doninger, who was the junior class secretary at the time, wrote on her Internet blog that the concert had been canceled due to the "douchbags"in the central office. In the same posting, she encouraged others to write or call Region 10 Superintendent Paula Schwartz "to piss her off more."

Principal Karissa Niehoff told Doninger to apologize to Schwartz, show her mother the blog entry and remove herself from seeking re-election as class secretary. Doninger agreed to the first two points, but refused to withdraw her candidacy.

Niehoff then told Doninger she would not provide an administrative endorsement of her candidacy, barring Doninger from the race, according to court documents.

Even though her name was not on the official ballot, some students wrote her name in anyway. She was not among the winners when they were announced, though school officials did not tell her how many votes she had received.

Only after filing a Freedom of Information request with the Region 10 Board of Education did Doninger and her supporters learn that more than 50 people had submitted write-in ballots for her. She received more votes for secretary than the candidate school officials had declared the winner.

"All I want is for my win to be acknowledged and for school officials to recognize that what they did was wrong," Doninger said.

She said there haven't been any problems at school, so far, as her notoriety has increased because of the lawsuit against school officials, including the high school principal.

"A lot of the teachers ask me how my case is going as I walk down the halls," Doninger said. "Kids come up to me all of the time and wish me luck."

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Kravitz wrote that Doninger had not shown "substantial likelihood" that she would succeed in challenging the constitutional validity of her punishment.

But Kravitz's ruling didn't address the biggest issues that Doninger's case presents: what kind of expression schools can regulate, whether schools can sanction behavior outside school, and just what can be considered on- or off-campus in the Internet age.

"The whole issue of blogs and off-campus e-mails is coming to the fore. Courts themselves are kind of feeling their way along," Kravitz said. "These are difficult issues."

It's an issue that eventually may end up at the U.S. Supreme Court, meaning that Doninger's time in the spotlight may be far from over.

Contact Dave Altimari at daltimari@courant.com.

Copyright © 2007, The Hartford Courant

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