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

The California Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving a former Santa Teresa High School student who claims the First Amendment protected his right to share his “dark poetry” with his classmates. Five of the seven judges voted to review the case in January.

The high court will decide whether statements made by a student can be considered a criminal threat even when they are not directed at specific individuals. The decision could affect student journalists who publish material perceived as threatening, even if the words are only intended to be rhetorical or satirical.

The student, referred to in the court decision only as Julius, was convicted on two counts of criminal threats for showing to two female classmates his poetry, which included descriptions of anger and violence. A juvenile court sentenced Julius to 100 days in juvenile hall and made him a ward of the court until he turns 18.

Julius had recently transferred to Santa Teresa High in March of 2001 when he handed out the poems. One poem, “Faces,” concluded with the statement, “For I can be the next kid to bring guns to kill students at school. So parents watch your children cuz I’m BACK.” Julius testified that he wrote the poem “Faces” in his sixth period English class because he was “having a bad day.”

School district officials argued that they had an obligation to treat this situation seriously, given the violent episodes that have occurred at other schools. Michael Kresser, Julius’ attorney, said that the prosecution, was an “overreaction” in response to school shootings, such as the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School.

“I don’t think anybody would have any problem with the administration calling my client in and explaining that his poems had frightened the recipients,” Kresser said. But he said this should not have led to a criminal conviction because the poems were not threats.

The California Court of Appeals, Sixth Appellate District, upheld the juvenile court ruling in October and found the poetry to be a threat that “was specifically intended to be taken as such.” In a 2-1 decision, the court also found that Julius did not have a First Amendment right to distribute his poetry.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Conrad Rushing said that the poem was “mere hyperbole.” Rushing wrote, “The only reasonable conclusion from these words is that [Julius] meant to share his poem, and the feelings expressed, with a fellow student, perhaps to make a new friend.”

Kresser said he is encouraged and optimistic that the state supreme court granted review.

“The freedom of expression can’t be narrowed down to just a very sanitized form of expression that everybody will be comfortable with,” Kresser said, “I think that’s really the danger of a case like this.”

“All [Julius] really did was write a poem,” Kresser said.