Calif. high court to decide if boy’s poetry is a criminal threat

CALIFORNIA — The California Supreme Court has agreedto hear a case involving a former Santa Teresa High School student who claimsthe First Amendment protected his right to share his “dark poetry”with his classmates. Five of the seven judges voted to review the case inJanuary.The high court will decide whether statements made by a studentcan be considered a criminal threat even when they are not directed at specificindividuals. The decision could affect student journalists who publish materialperceived as threatening, even if the words are only intended to be rhetoricalor satirical.The student, referred in the court decision only as Julius,was convicted on two counts of criminal threats for showing to two femaleclassmates his poetry, which included descriptions of anger and violence. Ajuvenile court sentenced Julius to 100 days in juvenile hall and made him a wardof the court until he turns 18.Julius had recently transferred to SantaTeresa High in March of 2001 when he handed out the poems. One poem,“Faces,” concluded with the statement, “For I can be the nextkid to bring guns to kill students at school. So parents watch your children cuzI’m BACK.” Julius testified that he wrote the poem“Faces” in his sixth period English class because he was“having a bad day.” The girls who received the poems,identified as Mary and Erin, testified in the juvenile court proceedings thatthey felt personally threatened by the writing. Mary sent an e-mail about thepoem to her English teacher, who in turn contacted the police.OfficerPach Tran conducted an investigation at the home of Julius’ uncle, PatrickWilliams, where Julius was living. Officer Tran found a hunting rifle, arevolver and ammunition.School district officials argued that they hadan obligation to treat this situation seriously, given the violent episodes thathave occurred at other schools. Michael Kresser, Julius’ attorney, saidthat the prosecution, was an “overreaction” in response to schoolshootings, such as the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School.“Idon’t think anybody would have any problem with the administration callingmy client in and explaining that his poems had frightened the recipients,”Kresser said. But he said this should not have led to a criminal convictionbecause the poems were not threats.“All [Julius] really did waswrite a poem,” Kresser said.The California Court of Appeals, SixthAppellate District upheld the juvenile court ruling in October and found thepoetry to be a threat that “was specifically intended to be taken assuch.” In a 2-1 decision, the court also found that Julius did not have aFirst Amendment right to distribute his poetry.Kresser argued thatJulius’ poetry was protected by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 decision inTinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which saidschool officials can only punish speech that is otherwise protected by the FirstAmendment if the speech would result in a material and substantial disruption ofthe school.The majority decision said, “We are convinced thatJulius’ written communication, which reasonably conveyed to fellowstudentsthat their lives and the lives of other students were in danger, was aconstitutionally unprotected communication.”In the dissentingopinion, Justice Conrad Rushing said that the poem was “merehyperbole.” Rushing wrote, “The only reasonable conclusion fromthese words is that [Julius] meant to share his poem, and the feelingsexpressed, with a fellow student, perhaps to make a newfriend.”Kresser said he is encouraged and optimistic that thestate supreme court granted review.This is the second case involving astudent convicted of making threats through artistic expression in California ina year. In the other case, another district of the California Court of Appealsoverturned a conviction of a boy who turned in a painting of a police officerbeing shot in the head. The officer depicted had cited the boy for possessingmarijuana, but the court said the painting did not constitute an immediatethreat to the officer. Kresser said Julius’ case is based on thesame principles. He said that ideas are sometimes expressed in terms ofpaintings, songs, or poems and to construe those literally as threats is“ridiculous.”“The freedom of expression can’t benarrowed down to just a very sanitized form of expression that everybody will becomfortable with,” Kresser said, “I think that’s really thedanger of a case like this.”

In re George T., 126 Cal. Rptr. 2d 364 (Calif. Ct. App. 6th Dist. 2002)