NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Citing Supreme Court precedent, the Fifth Circuit ruled that a high-school student who threatened a “Columbine-style attack” on his school is not protected speech because it poses a “direct threat” to students and teachers.
The notebook diary of a sophomore at Montwood High School in El Paso, Texas described several incidents involving a “pseudo-Nazi group,” including one in which the author ordered his group “to brutally injure two homosexuals and seven colored people,” and to punish another student by setting his house on fire and murdering his dog. The notebook also details the group’s plan to carry out a “Columbine shooting” at the high school or a “coordinated shooting at all the (district’s) schools at the same time.”
Though the student and his mother claimed the notebook was fiction, assistant principal Jesus Aguirre said it posed a “terrorist threat” and violated the school’s code of conduct. Aguirre suspended him for three days and recommended that he transfer to an alternative school. His parents, worried about college admissions, placed him in private school and sued the Socorro Independent School District to let him return to Montwood High with a clean record.
The district court granted them an injunction on First Amendment grounds, but the unanimous circuit reversed. If school officials can ban student speech advocating drug use on the grounds that it threatens student safety, Judge Grady Jolly wrote, “it defies logical extrapolation to hold school administrators to a stricter standard with respect to speech that gravely and uniquely threatens violence, including massive deaths, to the school population as a whole.
Jolly said schools cannot expel students “just because they are loners, wear black and play video games,” but that “when a student threatens violence against a student body, his words are as much beyond the constitutional pale as yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” See ruling.