Short Excerpts from Uncivil Liberites


Excerpt #1: from Part I

     On a hill to the north of Montpelier sits Mahady Park, a thousand acres of tall pines and mixed deciduous woods. Sheer granite outcrops overlook the town. Trails meander through the park. A couple of open shelters, one near the park entrance off Smiley Street, the other higher up, near the fire tower, are used for picnics and barbecues, even in winter. Ah, Vermonters.

     Snow had fallen a few days earlier and lay in scattered patches over the dark ground on this cold morning in November. Before dawn, a man walking his dog along the trail that skirts the bottom of one of the steep outcrops came upon a body. He didn’t notice her at first, in the dim light below the ledge.

    He was picking his way carefully along the trail, stepping over roots and rocks, a mournful fiddle tune running through his head, his old dog snuffling along beside him. He smelled the familiar dampness of the woods and the earth. The dog stopped to inspect a lumpy shape at the side of the trail, among the rocks and maple leaf detritus. Water dripped down the granite ledge, audible in the stillness. The man stepped closer, and he then saw the shape was a girl, twisted awkwardly in her down jacket, her eyes open and clouded. A denim cloth handbag was near the body. 

    He spun around. No one else was there. He muttered an oath to the dog, and they hurried home. In fifteen minutes he was on the phone with the Montpelier police.

    Soon the cops were at the spot below the cliff. They found identification in a pocket of the handbag, but Sergeant LaPorte already knew who the girl was. They all knew her mother, Deputy State’s Attorney Francine Loughlin. Barry LaPorte held his breath as he looked down at young Kerry Pearson, innocent and dead. All he said was “Shit” and then he looked up at the wet granite cliff. Thirty feet, he guessed. There was a trail near the top, not so close to the edge. This had never happened before; no one had ever fallen over the ledge. And no one had jumped.


excerpt #2: from part I

     On this blustery weekday morning in Montpelier, commuters from the surrounding villages and back roads drove with care, peering through the patch of windshield cleared by the defroster. A few pedestrians navigated sidewalks slick with frost. Steam coated the windows of the Sacred Grounds Café. Inside the café, a rustic orange tile countertop graced the street-side window, two worn sofas backed up against the far wall next to a table with insulated coffee urns and paraphernalia, and eight or ten wooden tables with unmatched chairs and assorted stools haphazardly straddled the space in front of the kitchen and service counter.

     A line of customers already stretched back from the counter. Next to the queue stood shelves crowded with pound bags of coffee beans, whole or ground, French presses, Italian percolators, and mugs for sale. Some customers left with their hot coffee and scones; others found a table or a stool by the window, greeted friends, read The Central Vermont Argus, worked on a laptop, or did nothing but stare at the steamy window.

     Had it been clear, they would have seen the county courthouse, across the street and up a half-block, red brick with white columns in front and a handsome clock tower above, with the simple symmetry of a New England church. Directly across Chamber Street sat a Dunkin Donuts, almost empty.

     Sam pulled off his beret, leaving his salt-and-pepper hair disheveled. His face had grown heavy in the past few years, with extra padding around the eyes, like he’d been in the boxing ring one too many times. He had lost some of the dark intensity that had marked his youthful face, which had so attracted the young college student named Donna Lowbeer in New Haven many years before. His mid-section was a bit heavy too, now, and his gait was slow and deliberate.

     He breathed in the aroma of dark roasted coffee and fresh cornmeal muffins, and saw Ricky Stillwell at the tile counter facing the window. Sam hadn’t seen his young friend for some time, and usually enjoyed hearing what was on Ricky’s mind. “Hey Ricky,” he called out. Ricky looked up quickly from his laptop with an awkward fleeting smile.


excerpt #3: from part I

     Sarah Jacobson drove up to Vermont from Providence for Thanksgiving with her folks. She had borrowed her friend William’s 1986 Toyota with a bad muffler and a missing front passenger window, the space now covered with plastic and duct tape. The loud snapping of the plastic as she drove made her jittery. Too much coffee contributed.

     Sarah felt ambivalent about the holiday because she thought it celebrated a meeting of cultures that masked incipient genocide of native peoples. And turkey disgusted her, especially its pimply skin. But she did usually enjoy her occasional sojourns north from Rhode Island to come home to Montpelier.

     Sarah was immersed in her work and her world and she felt, most of the time, she could safely ignore her parents because they were so established. She lived alone in a second-floor apartment in a neighborhood of Guatemalan and Dominican immigrants (or migrants, as Sarah insisted on saying). She split her workday between two community nonprofits, organizing campaigns that currently focused on labor abuses and foreclosures.

     She walked into the kitchen unannounced and found her father pouring a can of coconut milk into the curry simmering on the stove. For Sarah’s benefit, he had promised to use tofu rather than meat, and vegetable broth rather than chicken stock, and no Thai fish sauce. Aromas of coriander and cumin rose from the pot.

     He put the can down and gave his daughter an earnest hug. Donna, fixing a beet salad, dropped the knife on the cutting board and clasped Sarah around her shoulders. “Oh honey, you made it home. Was the drive okay?” 


Excerpt #4: from part II         

     When Alicia focused back on the proceedings, Tad Sorowski was discussing Kowalski v. Berkeley County Schools, a 2011 decision of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals based in Richmond, Virginia.  Kowalski was a senior in high school who was suspended from school for creating an appalling webpage, on her home computer, using the social network program called MySpace. She gave her page an odd name, “Students Against Sluts Herpes,” and it was filled with hateful mockery of another girl at the school. The creative juices of teenage sarcasm flowed in the wrong direction.

     The court had, here too, found a sufficient connection to the school to justify applying the Tinker standard and to uphold the suspension. Sorowski made the obvious argument that Stillwell’s conduct was similar in relevant respects to Kowalski’s.

     Judge Wallis stopped him here. “Mr. Jacobson or Ms. Santana? Who will argue for the plaintiff? Your turn.”

     Sam rose slowly to his feet, gathering focus. “First, Judge, the Supreme Court has never applied Tinker or other speech-limiting doctrines to student speech that occurs outside of school or school events. The First Amendment should have full sway in that context, and we should be cautious before applying lower court holdings that diminish the speaker’s traditional freedom. Second, in the lower courts, the cases are not uniform. For example, we have the en banc Third Circuit issuing a decision in June 2011 called Layshock v. Hermitage School District.”

     He paused, making sure he had the judge’s attention. “In Layshock, a high school student used his grandmother’s computer during nonschool hours. His grandmother’s computer—now that’s a novelty.” 

     The judge was not amused.

     “The student created a fake MySpace profile of the school’s principal. That is, this page was made to look as if it were the principal’s own page on MySpace. This fake profile, Judge, had a lot of rude content. It contained obscenities and references to drug use. The student shared it with his friends and sooner or later, inevitably, it came to the attention of school authorities. The student was punished.

     “It’s just like Kowalski in that respect, Judge Wallis, a student using a computer outside of school to create an obscene MySpace page that circulated within the school population. The court—the en banc court, Judge”—Jacobson here making the point that the decision was made not by the usual panel of three appellate judges but by the entire panoply of Third Circuit judges—“held that the school district violated the student’s First Amendment rights.”

     “I’m more interested in what goes on in the Second Circuit, Mr. Jacobson. How do you deal with Wisniewski?” She pronounced the name Wiz-new-ski.