NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. – The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against a rural North Carolina school system that barred a peace activist from talking to high school students about alternatives to joining the military.
The lawsuit, filed Monday, says the Wilkes County school district and its superintendent violated the First Amendment by preventing Sally Ferrell from distributing pamphlets and other materials that warn students to think twice before joining the military.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Ferrell and Bill Towe, director of N.C. Peace Action.
"We've tried to find another alternative to bringing this lawsuit," Katherine Parker, legal director of the ACLU's North Carolina chapter, said Tuesday. "They just will not compromise."
The legal group is asking a judge to issue an injunction to allow Ferrell, a member of N.C. Peace Action, to distribute the materials and give her the same access to students as military recruiters who are allowed in the schools.
No court date has been set, but Superintendent Stephen Laws said Tuesday the district "won't back down."
"It's sad that it's gotten to this point," he said.
He said the lawsuit could become a test case for other districts looking to ban peace activists from schools.
"Why should we let a peace action group talk to students if they're going to make disparaging remarks about the military?" he said. "I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way."
The case began in early 2005 when Ferrell, 63, a Quaker and longtime peace activist, became involved in the counter recruiting movement.
In recent years, thousands of people like Ferrell have joined dozens of counter recruiting groups. They say military recruiters have given students misleading information and often target high schools in poor and rural areas where options for graduating students are limited. And after years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan — and more than 4,600 soldiers killed and 64,000 wounded in both wars — the activists want students to know they have other prospects.
Most schools have allowed counter recruiters. So Ferrell was optimistic when she began collecting materials from anti-war groups. In March 2005, she asked the district for permission to talk to students.
But Laws reviewed the materials and told her he wasn't going to let her in the district's five high schools. He said the military was a good career choice for students who weren't going to college. He also said he didn't think people should say anything negative about the military.
"Why rip apart the military because you don't like it?" Laws said. "It's wrong. I'm not going to allow that in my schools."
The school board backed Laws' decision.
Ferrell eventually turned to the ACLU and after two years, the group reached an agreement with the board in which Ferrell would be allowed in the high schools twice a semester.
She set up a "peace table" in hallways, where she handed out material and talked to students about AmeriCorps and other alternatives to the military. But by December 2007, Laws said he'd had enough. A principal had complained to him about some of the materials and Laws told Ferrell her message was no longer welcomed.
"When she was allowed back in school, it was to talk about Americorps, Peace Corps, those kinds of entities," Laws said. "That's what she said she was going to do. And when it turned out that she didn't do that — that she was disparaging the military — we had to say no."
Ferrell said Tuesday she discussed those career options with students. But she also told them what to expect if they enlisted — and what to watch out for when talking to military recruiters.
"I don't think he (Laws) was ever interested in letting us speak to students. He was just looking for excuses," she said.