Jury rules school can punish student for writing story it deemed a threat

MISSOURI — The line between fact and fiction is too easily blurred for officials at Union Middle School, and a federal jury has agreed that the school can legally punish students for their violent writings. 

Union administrators suspended eighth-grader Allison Pitchford in April 2001 for writing a graphic story at home that she brought to school in which students and teachers were murdered. 

Pitchford sued the school district in federal court, claiming that the punishment violated her First Amendment right to free expression. A jury unanimously ruled in favor of the school district on Dec. 12, 2003. 

The jury determined that Pitchford’s story was a “true threat,” meaning that a reasonable person would interpret the story as the expression of an intent to cause harm or injury. The jury decided the story substantially disrupted and interfered with the school’s educational environment.   

School district officials were pleased with the ruling.

“Even if one person is concerned, that is enough [to take action]. Had we not responded there would have been mass chaos,” said Pete Yelkovac, a Union School District lawyer.

Yelkovac said the decision will not affect other students’ First Amendment Rights, but pointed out that “those rights are not endless and [must be] balance[d] against others’ [right] to an environment that is safe and comfortable for learning.”

The controversy began when Pitchford typed the story on her home computer and brought the story to school. Another student obtained a copy of the story and notified a teacher, who then had the student speak with the administration. The administration then suspended Pitchford for two 10-day periods for “disruptive speech.” 

The story was a parody of the movie Scream and similar teen slasher movies, said David Nelson, one of Pitchford’s lawyers. It named some Union Middle School students and faculty as characters. The story began “This story is not based on a true story but it could happen.” The story concluded “And that is the untrue/messed up/weird story.” 

“Following the Columbine High School shootings, school safety was on everyone’s mind. [Even if the story is not meant to be serious, schools] have to take every situation seriously,” said Union School District Superintendent VeAnn Tilson. 

Pitchford sued the district to overturn the first 10-day suspension, which she had already served, and to void the second 10-day suspension, which the court postponed until the lawsuit was resolved.  Pitchford appealed the decision in January but later dropped the appeal.  

“The jury’s decision ought to frighten students across the country,” Nelson said. “What [the verdict] says is that school districts are more than willing to sacrifice free speech and liberty on the alter of temporary, perceived security.”

Denise Lieberman, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who also represented Pitchford, said that in the five years since the Columbine High School shootings, she has observed an increase in cases similar to Pitchford’s.

“[She] parodied stories in movies that are being advertised to her age group,” Lieberman said. “Had Allison written this story several years ago, no one would have blinked twice. In this era of zero tolerance there’s a heightened crack down on student speech and creativity. [The school’s action was] unwarranted and doesn’t promote safety in the schools.”

Instead, schools are promoting self-censorship, which creates a chilling effect, Lieberman said. 

Pitchford does not write anymore because she is afraid that anything she writes is potentially suspect, Lieberman said.

CASE: Pitchford v. Union R-XI School District, Case No. 4:01CV1868 ( E.D. Mo. 2003)