Law & Courts

Court Distinguishes Between Threats, Free Speech

By Mark Walsh — May 23, 2001 1 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A creative-writing essay that depicted an angry student beheading his teacher with a machete was not a true threat of violence, but instead a form of speech protected by the First Amendment, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled last week.

But in another case, decided the same day, the court ruled that a student’s statement that he planned to “do something similar” to the 1999 shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School was not “adolescent trash talking,” as a lower court had found, but an illegal threat that merited punishment in the juvenile-justice system.

The state high court used the two May 16 rulings to try to draw a line between protected speech and serious threats of violence. The decisions come in a national context of continuing struggles by educators and law-enforcement officials to react both legally and effectively to warning signs of student violence.

The Wisconsin court ruled 6-1 that the machete essay was protected because it resulted from an assignment in a creative-writing class. An 8th grader, identified in court papers as Douglas D., wrote about a student who kills his teacher after she attempts to discipline him. Both Douglas D.'s teacher and the one in the story are known as Mrs. C.

Although the story was “crude and repugnant,” it was not a true threat of violence against his teacher, the court majority said.

The court stressed that even though the author could not be punished under the juvenile-justice system, administrators were on solid ground in suspending him for the essay.

“Under some circumstances, schools may discipline conduct even where law-enforcement officials may not,” the ruling noted.

Jeffrey P. Dickert, the superintendent of the 1,350-student Oconto district, where the case originated, said he was surprised that the court found that Douglas D.'s essay was protected speech.

“It is kind of amazing a teacher could be written about in that manner,” he said.

True Threats

The second case concerned statements by a middle school student in the 3,100-student De Forest district. The student, identified as A.S., talked to a friend about committing Columbine-like violence at school. The court ruled unanimously that his statements were true threats and were not protected speech.

“A.S. had no more right to make these statements than ... does a man have the right to cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” the high court said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2001 edition of Education Week as Court Distinguishes Between Threats, Free Speech


School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts In a Chat, Two U.S. Supreme Court Justices Talk Civics, Media Literacy
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett discussed civics education in a recorded interview presented by the Ronald Reagan Institute.
3 min read
Civics Justices 07292022 172183035
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Law & Courts Conservative Parent Group Sues School District Over Curriculum That Discusses Race and Gender
The lawsuit, among the first to cite a state law curbing discussions of those topics, could have broad implications for school districts.
9 min read
Image of a pending lawsuit.
Law & Courts Appeals Court Revives Student's Free Speech Suit Over Antisemitic Social Media Post
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit reinstated a case involving an off-campus post referring to the extermination of Jews.
3 min read
Image of a gavel
Law & Courts The Supreme Court and Education: Key Rulings That Impact Schools
A recap of the court's decisions that are relevant to schools and educators.
4 min read
Paul D. Clement at the lectern for the petitioner.
A sketch by Art Lien, who just retired after a long career as a courtroom artist, shows U.S. Supreme Court arguments in April in <i>Kennedy</i> v. <i>Bremerton School District</i>, a case about a high school football coach's post-game prayers and one of several cases of interest to educators during the court's 2021-22 term.
Art Lien