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.
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