Speech v. Safety

A new study says that the 1999 Columbine school shootings have had an impact on high school student speech ‘ and at least one student has felt the brunt of it.

The study, put out by the First Amendment Center in September, looks at the balance between school safety and protecting students’ First Amendment rights.

And Brian Conradt’s case may be an example of high school administrators failing to strike that balance, some student free expression advocates say.

Conradt, a former student at Carmel High School outside Indianapolis, was suspended for five days in 1999 after a Web site he designed calling 11 teachers and administrators “Satan Worshippers” was discovered the day after Columbine.

The suspension was just the beginning for Conradt, who said he did not mean any harm with the site. School officials ordered him to issue a written apology and he was sued by three of the teachers involved. He also left Carmel after the incident.

“It was a joke ‘ that’s all it was meant to be,” said Conradt, who is now a supervisor doing Web work and graphic design for a digital media company.

“It was pretty random. I went to the Carmel Web site and pulled random names,” Conradt said of the faculty members named on his site, which was up and running months before Columbine.

Unfortunately for Conradt, some of those mentioned did not see the humor.

Laurie Hansen, Conradt’s mother, said her son was suspended with the understanding that the school would not press charges.

But that agreement did not stop three teachers from filing their own suit against Conradt with the Indiana State Teachers Association paying their legal fees. They settled out of court for $5,000.

“I got back from suspension and all of a sudden ‘ thinking I’d served my time ‘ I got sued,” Conradt said.

Teacher said Web site ‘not funny’

Helen Shiffer, one of the teachers who sued Conradt, said she felt threatened by the site.

“I had never seen this young man before ‘ he only knew one of the teachers,” Shiffer said. “It was threatening. It was scary. I don’t think it had anything to do with free speech.”

Shiffer said the site, which also included other references to Satanism and urged viewers to tease those listed on it, was discovered when a middle school student was caught looking at it in the school library. She said the names of those posted on the site were linked to their school e-mails and that anyone could send them a message labeled “tyme-2-die.”

While she would have reacted strongly regardless, Shiffer said, “I’m sure I reacted more strongly because it was after Columbine.

“It was not at all humorous. I’m sorry, but flaming pentagrams, the stuff about shunning us ‘ that’s not funny to me.”

Shiffer said she and the other two teachers pursued legal action in order to set a precedent for similar cases for what is appropriate and inappropriate and how threats to educators would be handled in the future.

Conradt, who transferred to a private school in Colorado after the incident, disagreed about the nature of the suit.

“I think they’re just greedy,” he said. “I think they used Columbine as leverage for filing the suit. I honestly believe they used it as an excuse for taking action. I think it was blatantly obvious it was a joke.”

First Amendment advocates weigh in

It is fair to say Columbine has been a definite factor in student free expression, said David Hudson, an attorney at the First Amendment Center and the author of the study. The First Amendment Center based in Nashville, Tenn., works to preserve First Amendment freedoms through information and education.

Hudson’s 2005 report, “Student Expression in the Age of Columbine: Securing Safety and Protecting First Amendment Rights,” explores student speech post-Columbine and zero tolerance policies “that have spread from drugs and weapons to controversial student speech.”

“The serious question is zero tolerance leading to zero judgement” when controversial student speech is involved, Hudson said. “There has got to be common sense. Calling someone a Satan worshipper isn’t a true threat, although it may be defamatory.”

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, agreed that Columbine has been a factor in student expression.

Goodman said that every time there is a violent incident at a school there is probably a spike in students punished for views that could be seen as “threatening.”

“I don’t know that there was a dramatic change, but I do think that there were more efforts to limit what students could publish based on concerns about violence,” Goodman said. “Also, students may have been more hesitant to publish things that could be perceived as harshly critical of school officials.

“Not every circumstance is a true threat ‘ the same goes for humor and satire.”

Conradt’s mother echoed that sentiment.

“They couldn’t differentiate between the two, Columbine and him,” Hansen said. “It was a joke. His First Amendment rights got trampled on.”

Striking a balance

Because students do sometimes act on threats, experts say finding a balance between students’ rights to express themselves and school safety is not an easy task.

Ken Trump, a school safety expert, talked about this balance in Hudson’s report.

“The key to balancing safety with First Amendment or any other rights is to have legally sound policies, reasonable and well-understood procedures, and well-trained school staff,” Trump said according to Hudson’s report. “In my 20-years plus of working in schools, the vast majority of educators I have worked with strive for firm, fair and consistent discipline applied with good common sense.

“Unfortunately, it is when the latter component ‘ common sense ‘ is missing that we tend to see anecdotal cases where students’ rights are violated or questionable disciplinary actions come into place.”

Goodman also said common sense is a key component when administrators are faced with controversial speech.

“Administrators using common sense and recognizing there are dangers in seeing a threat when a threat doesn’t exist” is important, Goodman said. “What I fear happens is that many schools decide what they’re going to censor based on what the reaction will be, not whether there’s a real risk of violence.”

Hudson said it is important to look at several factors when dealing with controversial student speech, whether itis verbal, in art or on the Web. These factors include the student’s past disciplinary record, whether or not the recipient of the speech was truly afraid and other events going on in the student’s life. He added that it is key to consider the context of the situation and to talk with the student’s friends, parents and teachers.

“I think there is a difference in a student running around saying they’re going to bomb the school as opposed to violent imagery in art or a poem,” Hudson said. “I don’t mean to suggest that students can never be punished for violent expressions, but they [school officials] can’t forget that students do have constitutional rights.”

Kids often just seeking attention

Jean Cirillo, a clinical psychologist who studies teen behavior, told the SPLC in a past article that administrators are overreacting when then they assume students will act in a threatening way after engaging in controversial or violent expression.

“Kids seek attention this way,” Cirillo has said. “There is nothing that makes a kid feel better than scaring a powerful adult.”

Hansen said her son was doing just that: seeking attention.

“Kids do things to show off,” she said. “He was just showing off his ability to build a Web site to his friends.”

Cirillo also told the SPLC that harsh punishments, like the one given to Conradt, do not solve anything. It would be better to talk to them about their actions than act with an iron fist, she said.

Punishments silencing student expression may not only violate students’ rights, but can also prove dangerous, she said. Students are left with no way to share their feelings and administrators can miss clues revealing students who may need help.

In his report, Hudson writes, “If students feel they have no outlet, they may resort to more subversive, violent means of expressing themselves.”