The right to freedom of speech could get a workout this weekend, when two sides of the mountaintop removal debate appear at a local American Civil Liberties Union dinner.The West Virginia chapter of the ACLU is scheduled to hold its annual Bill of Rights Celebration and Dinner Saturday in Charleston.As part of the event, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts will be presented the Roger Baldwin Founders' Award for Civil Liberties.Hilary Chiz, director of the state ACLU, said the organization's board voted in December to recognize Roberts for "pushing the boundaries of free speech for labor unions."Also at the Saturday dinner, author Denise Giardina will speak and perform, along with Jude Binder and Elaine Wine, "The Ballad of Mary Harris" about legendary UMW organizer Mother Jones.Giardina, known for her novels about life in the West Virginia coalfields, has in recent months joined the fight against mountaintop removal mining.Since a March 3 federal court injunction against an Arch Coal Inc. mine permit, Roberts has become an outspoken supporter of mountaintop removal. He has called citizens who question the practice "environmental extremists" and led a march on the federal building to protest against U.S. District Judge Charles Haden.Originally, Giardina was going to introduce Roberts. After Roberts joined the pro-mountaintop removal forces, Giardina decided not to do that, Chiz said.There have also been rumors that some environmentalists may hold some sort of a protest at the dinner, Chiz said."The ACLU will be a clear winner here," Chiz said. "We encourage free speech. I intend to welcome anyone who comes."The annual ACLU dinner will also recognize Upshur County residents who filed a lawsuit to try to stop the distribution of Bibles in the county's public schools.In August, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the distribution in secondary schools, but not in elementary schools.The dinner is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at the University of Charleston Rotunda.Cost is $40 and reservations may be made by calling the ACLU at 345-9246.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.