Published on Sunday, December 9, 2001 in the Washington Post
The Consequences of Objection
Students Who Speak Out Against War Find Themselves Battling to Be Heard
by Emily Wax
When the halls of T.C. Williams High School filled with talk of bombs and revenge after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bradley Cook and her friends from the Amnesty International Club put up posters in the stairwells that read: "War Will Only Kill More."
The posters were torn down within hours. Sometimes by teachers. Sometimes by other students. They were put up a second time. And torn down again.
Another student at the school who recently wrote a pro-peace essay critical of U.S. foreign policy was asked to do another paper on a less "offensive" topic.
"I guess when we talk about how much our school loves diversity, we are talking about diversity of cultures," said Cook, a sophomore at the Alexandria school who helped put up the posters. "We are not talking about diversity of ideas. We were told that our posters would offend military families. The kids who believe in peace are totally ostracized."
It might have been cool for teenagers to talk peace during the Vietnam War, one in which many people saw no U.S. interest. But today, almost three months after the worst attacks in history by foreigners on domestic soil, Old Glory is prominent on school lockers and backpacks. "God Bless America" is played at the school dance. And being against the war is just not popular.
Dissident students across the Washington region who have attempted to question the war have found themselves at the center of a debate over what is appropriate free speech in schools during a time of extreme sensitivity, especially in communities that were directly affected by the attacks.
At Sherwood High School in Olney, Bahar Zarrabi, an Iranian American student who came to the United States when she was 6, wrote an anti-war piece for the student newspaper.
She started getting dirty looks in the halls. Even teachers argued with her.
"After I wrote that, people were, like, 'You need to not do this. You need to get behind your country,' " said 16-year-old Zarrabi. "I was trying to say this war is going to hurt our country, too. That war does no one good. But no one got my message."
Educators said it's a tricky time for lessons on how to balance free speech and a country's tragedy.
"I think we walk a fine line, and what has happened does make the issue more difficult for us," said John Porter, principal at T.C. Williams High School. "At the same time that we know our country was founded on having the right to state our opinions, we have to be aware of what we are saying if someone had a family member killed in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon."
H.B. Woodlawn School in Arlington is known as "hippie high" for its liberal student body and do-it-yourself class schedules. But even here, Principal Ray Anderson said, the issue is sensitive because it hits so close to home.
"Even here, I would talk to students who want to be vocal that they need to balance that right with the tragic situation," Anderson said.
Students and free speech advocates say being asked to tread carefully on fresh wounds is one thing, but being silenced is quite another. There is a national mood of intolerance for ideas that seem anything other than patriotic right now, said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.
"I am sad to say what's happening in these schools is a reflection of society at large," Goodman said. "We have been hearing about cases of intolerance of peace or criticism at schools all over the country, and we are going to be hearing about more showing up in the courts as free speech issues."
For students in class discussions, just bringing up options other than bombing can turn them into outcasts, teaching them how hard it can be to practice free but unpopular speech.
"I feel like one of very few people who wanted to talk about what America had done in the past and how that might have influenced the attacks," said Jessica Camen, 17, who lives in Northwest Washington and is a senior at Georgetown Day School. "After I did that, I got accused of being anti-American and being a traitor. It's like no one can say that America is anything other than perfect."
In the most stark case, Katie Sierra, a 15-year-old from Charleston, W.Va., was suspended from school for wanting to start an anarchist club to spread her views against the bombing and for wearing this message on her T-shirt: "When I saw the dead and dying Afghani children on TV, I felt a newly recovered sense of national security. God Bless America."
Sierra and her mother responded to the suspension by filing a lawsuit, arguing that her free speech rights were being violated. A West Virginia judge ruled in favor of the school, saying that the disruption she caused at school overrode her right to free speech. Sierra is appealing.
Sierra's mother pulled her out of school after the girl endured physical threats, taunting and accusations of "treason" from school board members when she went before them to protest her suspension.
"It hurts that people hate you because of your view," Sierra said. "It's scary. They are Americans, and they believe in free speech, unless you disagree."
School board member John Luoni, who accused Sierra of committing treason by espousing her anti-war views and trying to start an anarchy group, said she was simply causing too much disruption at school.
"I think this could be discussed at home," Luoni said.
Here in Washington, Katie's story has stirred solidarity from like-minded students and is being discussed in government classes.
During a lunch break at T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Nicole Sitgraves, 15, said she understands, to a much lesser degree, how Sierra feels.
Sitgraves was assigned to write an essay on world controversies for her English class. She wrote a paper criticizing U.S. foreign policy and arguing for peaceful solutions.
"I worked hard on it," Sitgraves said. "But people don't want to hear about this point of view. I thought school was the place to talk about these things."
There was no question that the paper was of acceptable quality -- she received an A. But when essays were posted on the bulletin board, as is the custom in Sitgraves's class, she was asked to write another one that might not offend others.
Sitgraves said she was going to write it on her other favorite cause -- endangered species.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company