A student who faced a felony charge of threatening a terrorist act of violence for material he published online pled guilty to a lesser charge Oct. 3.
Paul Wainwright, who posted what officials found to be a threatening message on an Internet discussion board used by students and alumni at Grinnell College, pled guilty to a serious misdemeanor of willful disturbance.
Wainwright’s attorney, Al Willett, said his client was sentenced to two years of probation and received a suspended jail sentence of 120 days.
Willett said Wainwright could have faced up to five years in prison and a $7,500 fine if he had been found guilty on the original felony charge.
Wainwright posted his message on the discussion board in response to complaints by other students about drug arrests made before spring break.
“Please come back to school armed with whatever lethal weapon you have access to,” the message read. “If we can’t depend upon the administration to protect the bubble we were promised and that they are selling us for 34,000 goddamn dollars a year, then we will have to take matters into our own hands. That means violence and bloodshed.”
Cassie Donnelly, a friend and classmate of Wainwright’s, told the SPLC earlier this year that the reaction to the posting was blown out of proportion.
“There probably was not any intention [behind the message] except to make a satirical comment about what was going on at our campus,” she said.
Wainwright is still a student at Grinnell. He did not respond to a call or an e-mail seeking comment.
SPLC View: This case is but the latest reminder of how important it is, particularly when publishing in the instantaneous and pervasive online medium, to avoid the use of language that will be perceived as a “true threat.” An incident such as this would probably not have resulted in a criminal prosecution ten years ago. Statements by students that used to be cast as blowing off steam or even a joke are now routinely passed on to law enforcement officials, many of whom have shown little tolerance or common sense in their response.