“Scales of Justice” by Avery (age 17)
What follows is part of Avery Doninger’s college entrance essay written in 2007 at age 17. It speaks for itself.
Scales of Justice
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 administrators had their own scales of justice – my opinion did not tip the balance and the punishment was final. . . .As I researched civil rights and school law,my scale tipped, and I filed a lawsuit – not for money but for justice. The principal accused me of 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.
…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.
Avery lost her court case in May, 2008. However, it was reargued before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in January, 2010. After much deliberation, the Second Circuit issued its opinion in April, 2011. They ruled that Avery does not have a clearly established First Amendment right to criticize school administrators on an off-vcampus blog. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was filed and on October 31, 2011 the Court refused to hear her case. The decision of the Second Circuit remains in place.
In the meantime, Avery has been a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, a camp counselor and spent a year with Americorps in 2008-2009. She started college in 2009 and continues her active involvement in campus affairs. In September, 2010, Avery was selected as HGTV’s Community Crusader for the month. In addition to a $5,000 award, a charity of Avery’s choice will also receive $5,000.