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Student’s Web Threats Aren’t Protected Speech

(CN) - A California private-school student who posted death threats on a classmate's Web site isn't shielded from hate-crime allegations, because the comments weren't protected speech, a state appeals court ruled.

Even if the post was constitutionally protected "jocular humor," as the student claims, it does not concern a "public issue" under the state's anti-SLAPP law, the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled.

A 15-year-old student at Harvard-Westlake School posted a message on another student's Web site, stating, "I want to rip out your fucking heart and feed it to you. I've wanted to kill you. If I ever see you I'm ... going to pound your head in with an ice pick. Fuck you, you dick-riding penis lover. I hope you burn in hell."

The recipient of the spiteful messages sued for violations of the state's hate-crime laws, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He had created the Web site to promote his singing and acting career; one of his songs has been broadcast nationally on satellite radio.

On the advice of police, the alleged victim withdrew from the private school. His family then moved to northern California, where he enrolled at a new school.

The appeals court in Los Angeles ruled that the post was a "true threat" and not constitutionally protected.

The post's author failed to show that the victimized student's claims were subject to the anti-SLAPP statute, which protects defendants from lawsuits meant to stifle First Amendment rights, the court ruled.

The messages "were motivated by a misperception of [plaintiff]'s sexual orientation," the ruling states. California hate-crimes laws protect individuals from threats of violence based on perceived sexual orientation.

"The threat in this case was not merely a few words shouted during a brawl; it was a series of grammatically correct sentences composed at a computer keyboard over a period of at least several minutes," Justice Robert Mallano wrote.

"If the threat conveys a serious expression of an intent to inflict bodily harm at all or in any manner, it is not constitutionally protected," Mallano added.

The defendant argued that his extreme dislike of the plaintiff's radio song had motivated the post, not the plaintiff's sexual orientation.

Justice Mallano found this argument absurd.

"That a one-time hearing of a song on the radio could generate so vitriolic a reaction defies reason," he wrote.

Dissenting Justice Frances Rothschild said the post was protected speech, because the plaintiff is "a person in the public eye" due to his fledgling career in the entertainment industry.

She characterized the post as "just one more link in the chain of vulgar, adolescent rants."

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