Almost Heaven

Good morning, it’s Tuesday, June 20, 2017. On this date in 1863, West Virginia became the 35th state in the Union, though “Union” was a loaded word then — and very much in doubt.

West Virginia had broken away from Virginia at the onset of the Civil War because its people did not want to secede from the U.S. for any reason, especially over the issue of slavery.

The forbidding geography of western Virginia had long before stamped itself on the character of its people. The Appalachians weren’t conducive to growing cotton or even large-scale farming, so Southern-style plantations were a rarity. An independent-minded identity took root among the hardy men and women who hewed a living out of those mountains. These were people offended by those who would wring their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.

West Virginia’s state seal told this story succinctly. At its center is a boulder inscribed with the date of statehood. On either side of the boulder stand two men, each of whom represents the extraction industries that have long driven West Virginia’s economy. One is a farmer with an ax and a plow; the other is a miner wielding the implements of his occupation. In the foreground lie two rifles, resting on the ground, accompanying a red liberty cap. Circling the seal is the state name along with its motto: Montani Semper Liberi, which means “Mountaineers Are Always Free.”

Four years ago, an eighth-grader in the West Virginia town of Logan wore a T-shirt to school with the state logo on it. It also featured, more prominently, an assault-style rifle with a scope below a slogan reading: “NRA Protect Your Right.”

School teachers in this country have become understandably jittery about young men in their midst who have firearms fixations. One such educator told the boy to remove the shirt or wear it inside out. To this provocation, 14-year-old Jared Marcum replied that his garment was not in violation of the school’s dress code. That response earned him a trip to the principal’s office, where Jared dug in his heels.

This being the century of “zero tolerance” among school administrators, the cops were called.

“They cannot do this,” Jared told the responding officer. “It’s not against school policy.”

Sit down and be quiet, a uniformed member of the Logan Police Department told him.

“No,” the boy replied. “I’m exercising my right to free speech.”

What happened next shouldn’t come as a surprise in a town where kids acted like adults and vice versa: Jared was taken to jail and charged with, you guessed it, a form of obstruction of justice.

The case was later thrown out by a judge, but not before stubborn local prosecutors not only refused to drop the case but tried to invoke a gag order when the family spoke to the media.

“We’re not the Nazi police,” whined the local police chief when the authorities in Logan were ridiculed by international press coverage.

He was right; yet the unwillingness of local officials to comprehend the larger principles at stake was depressing. Considering that it was happening in the Mountaineer State, it was also discordant. Into this breach rode the West Virginia chapter of the ACLU.

“Free speech is for everyone,” Brenda Lee Green, executive director of the group, wrote in a letter to West Virginia’s largest newspaper. “Schools cannot punish students based simply on the beliefs they hold.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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