Student’s Scholarship Eyes Youth Movements

Anna Cecile Pepper ’21 Turns Love of Learning Into Study of Students’ Rights
Anna Pepper

“My grandmother’s example and influence taught me that — no matter how young you are — your voice matters and can make a difference,” Anna Cecile Pepper said. Photo by Julia Davis


August 7, 2020

Growing up, Anna Cecile Pepper ’21 remembers her grandmother, a high school teacher, encouraging students to find and use their voices. Now a University of Virginia School of Law student, Pepper is turning those lessons about the power of youth speech into scholarship.

She recently served on a panel for the symposium “Speech Inside the Schoolhouse Gates: 50 Years After Tinker v. Des Moines,” to mark the landmark U.S. Supreme Court students’ rights ruling, and authored “Walking Out the Schoolhouse Gates,” published in the Virginia Law Review Online.

Pepper is also notes development editor for the journal, a Peer Advisor and a Virginia Law Ambassador who give tours to prospective students. This fall, she will participate in the Appellate Litigation Clinic.

The Elizabethtown, Kentucky, native graduated from the University of Louisville with a B.S. in political science and a B.A. in history.

In our occasional series “Star Witness,” Pepper discussed how a lifelong love of learning led her to law school and how today’s student activism challenges legal precedent.

Tell us something about your life before law school.

Before law school, I was a McConnell Scholar at the University of Louisville. As a McConnell Scholar, I took part in a four-year program that emphasized classical education, political leadership, service and scholarship. My favorite memories from the program include meeting Justice Neil Gorsuch and Ambassador Samantha Power; studying the work of Plato, Dante and Wendall Berry in afternoon seminars; and serving the Louisville community through acts of service with my fellow scholars. 

Why law school?

I chose law school because I wanted a career where I could be a lifelong student. If my time as an undergraduate taught me anything, it was that I loved to learn. This insight about myself, coupled with my time spent working at a law firm in Louisville, pointed me in the direction of law. I realized that the practice of law was the practice of learning. Whether it is mastering a new area of law or learning about a new industry or technology to serve a client, law school offered an opportunity to turn my desire to be a lifelong student into a lifetime occupation.

Tell us more about your interest and research on students’ rights.

All four of my grandparents were public school teachers. They dedicated their lives to educating and enriching the lives of others. The work of my grandmother Dianna particularly influenced my life. As an English teacher in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, my grandmother encouraged her students to find their voices and to put them to use. Taking a page from “Dead Poets’ Society,” she even allowed her graduating students to stand on top of her desk and speak their message to the world. My grandmother’s example and influence taught me that — no matter how young you are — your voice matters and can make a difference.

When I first read the Virginia Law Review’s announcement about its annual online symposium, I was excited about the prospect of contributing. The focus of the symposium spoke to the very lessons my grandmother instilled in her countless students, including me. My essay focuses on student free speech rights in the school walkout context. Whether it is speaking out about environmental issues or demanding reform in the wake of school shootings, students have increasingly turned to school walkouts as a form of political protest and expression. But student walkouts pose a difficult challenge under the Supreme Court’s current school speech jurisprudence. On the one hand, school walkouts involve the very student political speech that Tinker v. Des Moines sought to protect. But on the other hand, thousands of students walking out of class is the kind of disruption, disorder, and distraction that Tinker is framed to guard against. My essay addresses the need to strike the right constitutional balance between respecting students’ First Amendment rights and preserving order in the school setting. Publishing with the Virginia Law Review online on such an important topic was an honor.

As part of the symposium conference on student free speech, I also had the privilege of sitting on a panel titled “From Black Armbands to Confederate Flags: How to Handle Unpopular Student Speech Today.” Speaking on a panel with First Amendment activists and academics is an experience I will never forget. I am thankful to the Virginia Law Review for inviting me to share my scholarship with the UVA Law community.

What’s next for you?

After graduating next spring, I will clerk for Judge John Nalbandian on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. After the clerkship, I plan on returning to Washington, D.C., to pursue a career in private practice.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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