Town Has History of Speaking Its Mind

Emily Goldberg and Eliza Llewellyn, Staff Writer and Web News Editor

With a bold sign in hand, Callie Loparo ’12 has spent over ten Saturday afternoons standing on a picket line, protesting against puppy mills outside of Puppies of Westport. Loparo sees her role in the protests as a way of standing up for her beliefs. However, she only has this ability because of rights granted to her by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

“I feel thankful that we live in a country where we can express our opinions through protesting,”  Loparo said. “It’s a satisfying feeling that you are publicly trying to right a wrong and raise awareness about a problem in your own backyard.”

Throughout its history,Westporthas been an environment that encourages freedom of expression within Staples, as well as around town.

Speaking Freely in School

According to Principal John Dodig, the Staples administration encourages an open environment tolerant of a range of books, clothing, and conversations. This has allowed students to express themselves freely and rarely have concerns about being restricted.

“I don’t worry about what I say,” said Ashley Rey ’14.  “It’s not what I think about when I walk into school.”

Dodig emphasizes the importance of limited restrictions on student speech.

“It’s important for kids to come to school and feel safe,” Dodig said. “They must have a broad latitude in what they can say and do for that to happen.”

At Staples, First Amendment rights are evident in the library’s wide array of books, mature content in a student’s short story, or even in the length of shorts sported by girls in the summer.

Other districts can be different, according to Adam Goldstein, a lawyer at theStudentPressLawCenterinAlexandra,Virginia.

“The average high school is run like a littleCuba.”

Students’ free speech is a privilege in a school environment; the Supreme Court has ruled that free speech is not protected if it disrupts the school. According to Goldstein, in addition, vulgar comments are not protected, nor are pro-drug statements. And what’s called school-sponsored speech, including newspapers, are on shaky ground.

“There are only two groups of people with diminished First Amendment rights,” Goldstein said. “Students and prisoners.”

Dodig feels that Staples is relatively open to student free speech “There are lots of places even in this state that are a lot more conservative thanWestport.”

Some students agree. “It’s a lot more lenient than the school I went to before,” said Michelle Gurevich ‘14, who previously attended a private school.

However, speech promoting sex, drugs, and alcohol is still not protected even at Staples. In the Inklings Senior Supplement two years ago, anonymous seniors shared their “Senior Confessions.” Dodig had not reviewed this article before it was published and after publication asked Inklings to remove this page from the issue before it was sent to subscribers.

“It was totally inappropriate,” Dodig said of the article, which included content about sex and drinking. “I was embarrassed.”

Dodig said that in the future, he would not let a similar article be published. Dodig reviews all issues of Inklings before they are sent to print, a right of prior review guaranteed to administrators under another Supreme Court ruling. However, he is liberal in terms of allowing controversial content including student cigarette use, underage drinking, and sex.

“A wide range of speech is supported due to the community,” Dodig said.

 A History of Free Speech in Westport

 

A Westport resident of 47 years, Estelle Margolis recalls times when Westport was more of an activists’ town. During the Vietnam War, she and many others would protests against the war on the steps ofWestportTown Hall. These were family events that Margolis would bring her three children to.

OnMay 9, 1972, Margolis joined 31 people in an act of civil disobedience, linking arms and sitting in the middle of traffic on theSaugatuckBridgein order to protest the war inVietnam.

Despite having being arrested for standing up for her beliefs, Margolis remains a fervent believer in the right to free speech, and shows her support with a handful of Westporters that stand on theSaugatuckBridgeeach Saturday, protesting against the wars inIraqandAfghanistan.

“I’ve been protesting here for seven years, and I’m going to be here until everyone is out ofIraqandAfghanistan,” Margolis said.

Aside from war, other issues Westporters have been vocal about are those addressed by the Board of Education (BOE) and Board of Finance (BOF).

According to BOE Chairman Donald O’Day the Board welcomes comments from the public before meetings and at specified times during meetings.

This type of open dialogue is not only helpful forWestportresidents trying to express their beliefs but for the Board as well, he said.

“This year a man came to talk about continuing the A Better Chance (ABC)  program, which was temporarily suspended last year,” O’Day said. “He highlighted the fact that it is a good program, and this fast forwarded the discussion to continuing the program.”

Students have also taken a stand.  In 2009, then-freshman JJ Mathewson ’12 stood on the steps of Town Hall, armed with a megaphone, to implore the BOE to not cut classes like computer science and Collab due to budget reductions.

“I am absolutely thankful that I had the ability to speak out against what I thought was wrong,” Mathewson said.

While Mathewson recognizes student discussion of problems, many of which are brought to his attention as President of Student Assembly, he encourages students to express their opinions more often.

He referenced the issue of Arena, a 38-year-old program cut in 2011, where students were able to try to select which teachers they wanted. “While a lot of students were upset [about Arena being cut], there weren’t enough people who followed through and actually made an effort to try and stop it.”

Along with Mathewson, Margolis has seen the widespread effects of using our Constitution-granted right to express our beliefs.

“The First Amendment impacts every important issue in our lives, in the government, in the courts,” Margolis said. “We have been extraordinarily blessed to have great thinkers at the Philadelphia convention who created what proves to be a great Constitution.”