2008 Youth Scholar - Chip Gibbons, Severna Park High School, Millersville, MD

March 14, 2008
Chip Gibbons

"Chip is one of the most concerned and aware interns we've ever had. Since his first day at the ACLU, it was clear that Chip strongly believed in defending the Bill of Rights and the rights of all people – from his high school to Maryland's prisons to Guantánamo Bay."

 

Learn about the other 2008 Youth Activist Scholarship winners > >

Chip Gibbons, a Millersville, MD native and intern with the ACLU of Maryland, is passionate about a wide range of civil liberties issues from the PATRIOT Act, closing Guantanamo Bay and torture, to ending the death penalty and the war on drugs. Chip stepped up his activism when a student group he belongs to, Students for Peace and Justice, tried to invite an Iraq war veteran to his school to talk about the realities of war. Shortly before the presentation was scheduled to take place the school canceled the speaking engagement. In response, Chip took the initiative to organize an off-campus event with the veteran, so his message could still reach students. Later, he confronted school officials when they decided that he and his student group could not distribute fliers informing their fellow students about military recruitment opt-out options. Thanks to his efforts and those of Students for Peace and Justice, school officials relented and allowed them to inform students about military recruitment. Chip has continued to be a civil liberties activist and organizer whose voice will not be silenced.


Chip's Scholarship Essay

During an era of repression eerily similar to the present, Robert Baldwin, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, stated, "Silence never won rights. They are not handed down from above; they are forced from pressures from below."

I first became interested in civil liberties in the eighth grade when I learned about the Patriot Act. Like many other Americans, I did not realize the importance of our rights until they were lost. However, unlike most Americans, I refused to be complacent. Instead, I took Roger Baldwin's statement to heart, and not just in regards to the Patriot Act.

The Iraq War served as the catalyst for my involvement in a wide range of causes. I became aware of the Patriot Act and more mindful of current events. After learning about the Patriot Act, my interest turned toward civil liberties issues—from Guantanamo Bay, torture, and violation of the Geneva Conventions to the death penalty and the War on Drugs.

Wanting to become involved in the fight to protect civil liberties, it was not long before I was an ACLU member and an intern at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. I also volunteered in the national office for the Student Peace Action Network—another organization opposed to the curtailment of civil liberties under the guise of the Global War on Terrorism. At both organizations, I did important things, such as working on legal intake and facilitating student outreach through social networking sites.

However, my greatest and most direct involvement with civil liberties activism has been at my high school, where the battle took place on a personal level. My other passion, peace, caused me to directly encounter violations of civil liberties.

On the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War, I co-founded the Students for Peace and Social Justice at my school. Normally such an event would not even raise an eyebrow, but I live in a community so rightwing that any one to the left of John Birch is viewed as "some sort of communist." To show that this is not a hyperbole: The Constitution Party's 2004 presidential candidate, Michael Peroutka, lives down the street from me.

Some elements of my conservative neighborhood lack tolerance for opposing views. For example, when my ninth grade government teacher tried to show Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (after school to interested students who had parental permission), the school was flooded with calls from parents complaining the school was promoting "liberal propaganda." As a result of this and similar incidents, the school's administration has become cautious about activities that may offend the sensibilities of the community.

I had my first personal encounter with this mentality when Students for Peace and Social Justice tried to invite Adam Kokesh of Iraq Veterans Against the War to speak about the realities of war. Right before the event, I was told that Adam could not speak at the school. The reason given was an easily disprovable allegation made by a caller that Adam was racist (nothing could have been further from the truth.) I believe the real reason for the school's decision was that Adam's talk would highlight an unpopular view and the administration feared negative attention from the community.

When reasoning with the school failed, I organized an off-campus event so that Adam's message would still be able to reach students regarding military enlistment. Unfortunately, this was not the end of the battle for my right to express a controversial opinion.

Our student group recently decided we would set up a table in the school's cafeteria to distribute forms allowing students to opt-out from having personal information released to military recruiters and a flyer called "The Truth About What Recruiters Promise." We were told we could not do this, despite the fact that other school clubs, as well military recruiters, routinely did this. I consulted with a local First Amendment attorney and the ACLU Legal Staff who, after reviewing the documents in question, believed that the administration's actions violated our group's civil liberties. The group had never been given a reason as to why the flyers were inappropriate or why the group could not table in the cafeteria. In order to attempt to remedy the situation, or learn how the administration justified barring information on student privacy and military recruiters, I scheduled a meeting with the administration.

I would love to end with a glorious victory for civil liberties; however, the controversy over our counter-recruitment table is not over. The meeting has been postponed by the administration. The school actually made us prove that are a school sponsored club, even though we have been approved by the administration, have a teacher advisor, and are listed as a school-sponsored club in two publications printed by the school.

It is clear that the administration is stalling in hopes that the student group will just give up and go away. What is also clear is that the sole reason the administration wants us to go away is that we have a controversial point-of-view. This is where the civil liberties issue lies. Every person has the right to freely express a point-of-view, no matter how controversial or unpopular it may be. Students have the right to advocate for peace in a conservative neighborhood, just as Nazis have the right to march through Skokie.

Rights aren't something that exist on some pedestal or in some glass case at a museum, they are something that belong to you. However, first you must claim them.

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