Discipline Upheld Over Student’s Instant-Messaging Threats

By Mark Walsh — August 02, 2011 2 min read
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A federal appeals court has upheld the school discipline of a Missouri student who discussed in an instant-message conversation with a friend his desire to get a gun and shoot several of his classmates at school.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, unanimously ruled that the comments by a student identified as D.J.M. were “true threats” that were not protected by the First Amendment.

“The First Amendment did not require the [school] district to wait and see whether D.J.M.'s talk about taking a gun to school and shooting certain students would be carried out,” said the court’s Aug. 1 opinion in D.J.M. v. Hannibal Public School District.

Court papers say D.J.M. was instant messaging with a friend in October 2006 when he discussed being romantically spurned by a female classmate. D.J.M. said he had access to a gun, and that while he would probably let the female friend live because “I still like her,” he named several specific students who he “would have to get rid of,” and he used anti-gay and racist epithets.

The student on the other end of the IM conversation, C.M., became concerned, and she passed along some of the comments to an adult friend, who contacted the principal of Hannibal High School. C.M. also passed along comments from D.J.M. that he “wanted Hannibal to be known for something,” that he had access to a gun, and that he might commit suicide after shooting his classmates.

School officials immediately contacted police, who took D.J.M. into juvenile detention. Meanwhile, D.J.M. was suspended for 10 days, and later for the rest of his sophomore year. The student and his parents sued the Hannibal district, alleging that the suspension violated his free-speech rights because the instant messages were conducted outside of school and were not meant as serious expressions of intent to harm anyone.

A federal district court largely granted summary judgment to the school district, and D.J.M. appealed to the 8th Circuit.

The appeals court upheld the district court’s findings that the comments by D.J.M. were true threats not protected by the First Amendment based on the specificity of the threats, his mindset at the time, and his access to a weapon.

“Here the [school] district was given enough information that it reasonably feared D.J.M. had access to a handgun and was thinking about shooting specific classmates at the high school,” the 8th Circuit court said. “In light of the district’s obligation to ensure the safety of its students and reasonable concerns created by shooting deaths at other schools such as Columbine and the Red Lake Reservation school, the district court did not err in concluding that the [school] district did not violate the First Amendment by notifying the police about D.J.M.'s threatening instant messages and subsequently suspending him after he was placed in juvenile detention.”

The appeals court opinion does not discuss how long D.J.M. remained in juvenile detention, but the Hannibal Courier-Post reports here today that he eventually returned to Hannibal High School and graduated.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.