Vindication for Suspending Teen After Threats
(CN) - A Nevada school district did not slight the First Amendment when it suspended a student for chatting online and off-campus about a mass shooting, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday.
Landon Wynar was arrested and suspended for 90 days during his sophomore year in 2007-08, after his friends showed the football coach and principal at Douglas County High School, in Minden, Nev., several troubling MySpace messages the teen had written.
In the messages, Wynar said that he was planning a shooting rampage at the school for the anniversary of the Columbine massacre. He also bragged that he would beat the mass-shooting record set by the Virginia Tech shooter, and made specific references to fellow students on his "hit list."
One message said: "and ill probably only kill the people I hate? who hate me / then a few random to get the record."
In another, Wynar said he had "thought about ripping someones throat out with one. / wow these r weird thoughts. . . / then raping some chicks dead bodies to? no. maybe. idk."
Wynar told police and school officials that he had sent the messages as a joke. He and his father then filed a civil rights action against the school district and several officials, claiming the suspension had violated the First Amendment. U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks ruled for the school district in Reno, and a unanimous appellate panel affirmed on Thursday.
"Landon's messages, which threatened the safety of the school and its students, both interfered with the rights of other students and made it reasonable for school officials to forecast a substantial disruption of school activities," Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote for a three-judge panel in San Francisco.
McKeown noted that, under the specific circumstances of the case, the school district had every reason to fear that Wynar was serious.
"The messages suggest a fascination with previous school shootings," she wrote. "Landon explicitly invoked the deadliest school shooting ever by a single gunman and stated that he could kill even more people without wasting a single bullet. The given date for the event - April 20 - implicitly invoked another horrific mass school shooting - the massacre at Columbine."
"We need not discredit Landon's insistence that he was joking; our point is that it was reasonable for Douglas County to proceed as though he was not," McKeown added.
During oral arguments before the appellate court in May, attorney Jeffrey Blanck argued that the district had failed to show that Wynar frightened students or interfered with school operations.
Blanck said in an interview Thursday that the case was really about the reach of the school district's power over his client.
"In this case, they are saying that, even though he's having these private conversations with his friend, he should have known that they would make it back to school," the Reno-based lawyer said.
He said the decision does not bode well for Americans' expectation of privacy.
"The new standard in the America is now that if you have any kind of conversation, expect it to be public."
Blanck also noted that all criminal charges against Wynar were dropped, and that he passed two mental-health exams.
"This was a nonevent" to which the district had "overreacted," he said.
The school district's attorney, Ann Alexander, of Reno's Erickson, Thorpe & Swainston, did not respond to a request for comment.