ACLU Sues N.C. School District Over Access

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued a school district in North Carolina, claiming the Wilkes County schools denied access to a pacifist who wanted to talk to students about alternatives to the military.

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The Pentagon wants to sign up 322,000 military recruits this year. And the push is on to find them at high schools across the country. So, an anti-war group in North Carolina wants students to hear its message, too. It's joined forced with the ACLU to file a lawsuit against the school district in North Wilkesboro. Greg Collard of member station WFAE reports.

GREG COLLARD: In some ways, this story has its roots back in the first Iraq War. Back then, Sally Farrell's(ph) son was in high school and so were military recruiters.

Ms. SALLY FARRELL (North Carolina Peace Action): They would try to speak to him at school. They would call on the phone. They would call his work. They went to his workplace.

COLLARD: Fast forward to 2005. Farrell heard more stories of aggressive recruiters. And as a member of North Carolina Peace Action, she asked the local superintendent for permission to visit schools herself to talk to students about her view of the military.

Ms. FARRELL: We really weren't expecting any resistance, but he said no.

COLLARD: Eventually, Superintendent Stephen Laws relented when Farrell brought a representative of AmeriCorps. That lasted one semester.

Mr. STEPHEN LAWS (Superintendent, Wilkes County Schools, North Carolina): It kind of regressed into a negative portrait of the military rather than a positive recruiting for other options. And at that point, I said no, we're not going to do that.

COLLARD: Laws says he won't allow any school visitors to criticize other groups on campus. Farrell says she's not critical. She's just telling students facts. She says the school system's refusal to allow her on campus is a violation of her First Amendment rights. Last month, the state ACLU filed a lawsuit against the district. Attorney Charles Johnson represents the ACLU.

Mr. CHARLES JOHNSON (Attorney, American Civil Liberties Union): They have a right to determine the sorts of access that are given to outsiders to come into the schools. But once they open the door, they cannot discriminate upon the basis of viewpoint.

COLLARD: The school superintendent disagrees. He says the purpose of having any recruiter on campus is to offer kids employment or education opportunities. He thinks Farrell and North Carolina Peace Action have a political agenda.

Mr. LAWS: Unless they back down, it'll go to court because we're not backing down.

COLLARD: Laws is speaking to a group of juniors and seniors at the district's main office about the lawsuit. Most, like Ashley Rankin(ph) and Courtney Jarvis(ph), say it's okay for recruiters to be at their school. But they don't want to be the subject of a hard sell.

Unidentified Woman #1: The lady was coming around, saying here, here, you need to read this and handing us stuff, and…

Unidentified Woman #2: It seems to me like she's pushing her opinion on us more than - she's just giving out factual information.

Unidentified Woman #1: She does have facts, like, they're facts, but they're opinionated facts.

COLLARD: One brochure warns students they shouldn't enlist to escape problems then adds that many people discover the military amplifies their problems. But these teenagers also say Farrell's literature serves a purpose, such as one that suggests questions to ask recruiters.

Last year, a Chicago-area school banned a peace activist distributing similar literature. The activist was later allowed to return. Peace groups plan to hold a national conference this summer to come up with strategies so that school districts let their messages be heard.

Sergeant First Class Scott Gianfrancesco(ph) heads the Army's recruiting office in the North Wilkesboro area. He doesn't have the access he wants, either. That's because this controversy prompted the school board to restrict all recruiters to just four visits a year.

Sergeant First Class SCOTT GIANFRANCESCO (United States Army): Some of the students are a little more standoffish in the Wilkes County Schools. Some of the educators themselves that are in there because they've had limited contact with military personnel.

COLLARD: But the policy doesn't include classroom visits, so Gianfrancesco is identifying military-friendly teachers to encourage them to invite recruiters to their classes. For NPR News, I'm Greg Collard in Charlotte.

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