NC Group Wins Access to Public Schools

August 12, 2009

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) on August 12 announced the successful resolution of a four-year battle between peace activist Sally Ferrell and the Wilkes County Board of Education regarding Ms. Ferrell’s constitutional right to free speech in the Wilkes County high schools. Beginning in March 2005, Ms. Ferrell had sought permission from the school district to distribute information to high school students regarding alternatives to military service, as well as information about the realities of military service on the same basis and to the same extent as military recruiters were being allowed access to students for purposes of recruiting. Military recruiters had been granted access to students in Wilkes County high schools for some time, but the Superintendent and members of the Wilkes County School Board repeatedly refused Ms. Ferrell’s request to distribute literature and to speak with students. The ACLU-NCLF intervened on Ms. Ferrell’s behalf, and for a short time, the school district allowed her to provide information to the students as a representative of N.C. Peace Action. Students reported that they were pleased to receive the information from Ms. Ferrell and N.C. Peace Action about opportunities with Job Corps and AmeriCorps and expressed appreciation that different points of view were allowed to be expressed. Nevertheless, the Superintendent soon rescinded her access to the schools, and the ACLU-NCLF filed a lawsuit in Wilkes County Superior Court on January 5, 2009.

On behalf of Ms. Ferrell, the ACLU-NCLF sent a letter to Superintendent Stephen Laws in September 2005, expressing concern that the school district was discriminating against Ms. Ferrell based on her viewpoint, in violation of her First Amendment rights. The ACLU-NCLF informed the school district that under the First Amendment, if the school allowed military recruiters to have access to students in school, then it also had to allow equal access to people wishing to present alternative points of view.

During the latter part of 2005 and into 2006, the school district informed the ACLU-NCLF that it was drafting a new policy regarding employment and military recruitment in the schools. Wilkes County School District Policy 5240 (Policy on Recruiters) was adopted in July 2006, acknowledging that, “if military recruiters are permitted to have access to students on campus, equal access must be provided to organizations that wish to present alternatives to military service….”

In the fall of 2006, Ms. Ferrell obtained organizational sponsorship from N.C. Peace Action and again sought access to students for the purposes of distributing literature and communicating with students, in full compliance with Policy 5240. Again, she was denied her legal rights to equal access to students, and in December 2006, the ACLU-NCLF threatened litigation on Ms. Ferrell’s behalf. In April 2007, Ms. Ferrell was finally permitted full and equal access to students in Wilkes County high schools, but after just a short time, her permission was revoked by Superintendent Stephen Laws. When the school district refused to treat Ms. Ferrell fairly and to respect her First Amendment free speech rights, the ACLU-NCLF sued the school district in Wilkes County Superior Court, and a favorable settlement was reached on August 11, 2009.

“The ACLU-NCLF will continue to monitor the situation closely to ensure that the new school regulations are implemented fairly and in a manner that does not discriminate against organizations or speakers based merely on school officials’ disagreement with the point of view being expressed,” said Katherine Lewis Parker, ACLU-NCLF Legal Director.

The parties met on Tuesday, August 11, 2009, and agreed to a settlement that would permit Ms. Ferrell and N.C. Peace Action to have access to Wilkes County high school students on the same terms and under the same conditions as military recruiters have, which is exactly what Ms. Ferrell has been seeking for more than four years. If the school district honors its end of the agreement, then the lawsuit will be dismissed.

CCW has consistently supported groups like Ms. Ferrell’s in their attempts to gain access to students in schools. Given the serious nature of military enlistment, the Center feels it is imperative that those considering enlistment have good information other than that provided by the sales personnel, namely military recruiters. “I was continually denied access to speak with students in our local high schools who were being aggressively recruited by the military,” said Sally Ferrell. “I am glad the schools have finally recognized N.C. Peace Action’s First Amendment right to express our viewpoint, and I look forward to providing truthful, job-related information about military careers – and alternatives to careers in the military – in all Wilkes County high schools.”