GEORGIA — A federal appeals court ruled July 31 against a Fulton County student who claimed that her school violated her free-speech rights when it punished her for writing about a dream in which a student shoots a math teacher.
Rachel Boim, then a ninth-grader at Roswell High School, was suspended and nearly expelled in October 2003 for keeping a journal with the violent entry. A federal judge in Atlanta dismissed Boim’s First Amendment lawsuit last year because, the decision reads, her writing was “sufficiently disturbing” to merit discipline. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also agreed with the school and cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Morse v. Frederick in its ruling.
According to court documents, Boim’s notebook was discovered when she was caught passing it to another student during class. The teacher confiscated the notebook and found that, under a divider labeled “Dream,” Boim had written about shooting a male math teacher.
“I stand up and pull the gun from my pocket. BANG the force blows him back and every one in the class sit [sic] there in shock,” she wrote.
The teacher reported the notebook to Fulton County School District officials, who expressed concern that the student’s writing constituted a threat against her male math teacher. The school suspended Boim and attempted to expel her, but the Fulton County Board of Education overturned the expulsion on an appeal by Boim. The Boim family filed suit two years later to take the suspension off Boim’s record, arguing that the school’s actions violated the First Amendment. But the district court found that the school was within its rights, prompting the family to appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision that the Fulton County School District’s concerns were justifiable by referring to violent incidents on school grounds, such as the Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University shootings. The appeals court ruling, authored by Judge Joel F. Dubina, notes that there had been at least 10 student perpetrated shootings at U.S. schools in the eight years prior to Boim’s suspension, citing statistics from Wikipedia, an online user-created encyclopedia, and an article posted on CNN.com.
The decision cites the student speech standard established by the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, arguing that Boim’s speech could create a “substantial disruption” in the school. The decision also cites Morse, in which the Supreme Court upheld a school’s right to punish a student for hoisting what it interpreted as a banner advocating illegal drug-use, to conclude that, “the same rationale applies equally, if not more strongly, to speech reasonably construed as a threat of school violence.”
“There is no First Amendment right allowing a student to knowingly make comments, whether oral or written, that reasonably could be perceived as a threat of school violence, whether general or specific, while on school property during the school day,” the court opinion said.
“As we feared,” said Student Press Law Center Executive Director Mark Goodman, “Courts are using Morse as authority to justify acts of censorship far beyond the circumstances of that ruling.”
Judge Susan H. Black wrote in a concurring opinion in Boim v. Fulton County School District that stated the court’s decision could have been decided under the Tinker standard alone.
Although she lost in the appeals court, Boim can continue the two-year-old case by asking for a rehearing by the full 11th Circuit or by appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, if she chooses.
Carol Callaway, an attorney for the school district, said she is pleased that the court upheld a school official’s right to act in the school’s best interests in light of a “perceived threat.” She said she is unsure whether the Boim family will continue the lawsuit.
Boim’s attorney, Don Keenan, could not be reached for comment.
Boim wrote for her school’s student newspaper, The Sting.
For More Information:
Boim v. Fulton County Sch. Dist., No. 06-14706-JJ, 2007 WL 2177677 (11th Cir. July 31, 2007).