Sensitive speech: High schools react to violent expression after Virginia Tech massacre

Eight days after the Virginia Tech University massacre, a high school student in Northport, Wash., was overheard telling other students that chaining shut all of the doors in the school except for one would make it easy for a gunman to shoot those emerging from the unchained entrance.

The vivid images that Lance Timmering, 17, painted caught the ear of two Northport High School teachers, who reported the incident to the principal. Teachers discovered a notebook that had the word “Assassination” written across the cover and contained notes on how to kill 20 to 30 people. Principal Patsy Guglielmino acted quickly; she immediately expelled Timmering and oversaw his arrest by local police, later citing the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School and the recent Virginia Tech University shootings to justify her swift actions.

In the aftermath of violent incidents, schools can be quick to crack down on student speech that appears to express violent thoughts. Although some school officials said a tougher stance on “violent speech” might be necessary to expose or discourage potential school violence, students and activists said such enforcement is often an “overreaction” and schools should not curtail free-speech rights, even if the airwaves are buzzing with tales of school-ground terror.

Keeping schools safe

Administrators and school-safety proponents said news of campus violence should remind schools that it is incumbent upon them to make safety — and not speech — a top priority.

John Lochman, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Alabama who conducts research on risk factors and violence prevention, said school officials are more likely to suppress student expression immediately after violent incidents because they become “more sensitized” to the potential for tragedy at their own schools.

“They are more likely to respond strongly and, perhaps, overly strongly,” he said.

Since the 1999 Columbine shooting in Jefferson, Colo., which left 12 students, one teacher and the two shooters dead, officials have become much more proactive in seeking out and disciplining student speech that contains violent thoughts. Following the shooting, many schools enacted zero-tolerance policies on speech or writing that appeared to express a violent intent. A group of politicians, including then-House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), even tried to pass legislation in Congress to censor student speech.

“It’s definitely changed,” Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, said of schools’ approach to speech connoting violence. “The growing reality is that administrators are becoming much more aggressive in this era.”

On April 16, a student gunman at Virginia Tech killed 32 people and left many more wounded before turning the gun on himself. The massacre, the deadliest school shooting in American history, drew the eyes and concern of school officials across the country.

Mike Hiestand, Student Press Law Center legal consultant, said the Virginia Tech shooting reinvigorated the more aggressive attitude toward student speech that had been dying down in the years after Columbine.

“Schools are looking for and making up things out of statements that, in the past, would have been passed over as foolish kid talk,” he said.

Randy Swikle, who recently retired from 36 years as an adviser to an Illinois high school student newspaper, said the increased discipline of unsavory student speech is bad news for student publications as well. He said he is concerned that school officials are inadvertently telling student journalists that their schools do not trust them to exercise their own editorial judgment.

“A lot of schools right now don’t want their students to know what their rights are because they’re afraid they’ll start using them,” he said.

Hiestand said the conflict at Northport High School may be a part of the reinvigorated trend.

Following Timmering’s arrest, Principal Guglielmino told local media that she acted with the recent school shootings in mind and it is her duty to “look at every threat as though it is real.”

Although Guglielmino admitted that she did not think the school was in any significant danger and later said she did not feel personally threatened by reports of Timmering’s behavior, she maintained that school policy obliged her to issue an emergency expulsion over concerns that the behavior signaled impending danger.

Timmering initially was charged with a felony of a threat to kill by Stevens County police. But after investigators determined that Timmering did not pose a safety threat and dozens of letters written in support of the student poured in, Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen reduced the charge to a misdemeanor.

Pleading guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct in Stevens County District Court on June 11, Timmering was sentenced to pay a $75 fine, attend mental health counseling, send out letters of apology to the community and serve one year of probation.

He can even return to school for his senior year if he remains on good behavior and Northport decides to invite him back, Rasmussen said.

Guglielmino said Timmering’s eligibility to re-enroll “hasn’t been decided yet” because he has not yet completed his application for re-entry.

In a similar incident that emerged several hundred miles east of Northport, a high school senior in Cary, Ill., was removed from school and arrested for writing an essay containing images of gun violence and sex in his English class.

In response to an assignment from the teacher that asked him not to “judge or censor” his words, Allen Lee, 18, handed in a personal reflection paper about “shooting everyone” and having “sex with the dead bodies.” The essay, turned in one week after the Virginia Tech shooting, mocks his English teacher, telling her not to be “surprised on inspiring the first [Cary-Grove] shooting.”

Cary-Grove High School Principal Sue Popp had Lee removed for 10 days and arrested while school officials and the local authorities analyzed his essay and probed into his life to determine the danger he posed to the school. Upon hearing of Lee’s arrest, the U.S. Marine Corps promptly removed him from its enlistment program and briefly extinguished the student’s dream of becoming a Marine after high school.

But prosecutors eventually dropped the charges against Lee once they determined that he was not dangerous. Lee returned to school without receiving further punishment and he graduated with the rest of his class May 26 to loud applause, his attorney, Tom Loizzo, said.

Loizzo said his client’s free-speech rights were trampled upon not for expressing a violent intent but rather for simply following the teacher’s instructions to “release his inner critic” in his writing.

Perilous times for student speech

Some First Amendment advocates have characterized administrative crackdowns on student speech as classic overreactions following a large-scale tragedy, arguing that safety regulations should not leave the First Amendment biting the dust.

John Bowen, chairman of the Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission, said schools too often punish what could be valuable student expression out of fear.

“We encourage students to be creative, think outside the box,” he said. “A lot of that may involve fantasies that can be interpreted as violent.”

Swikle said that although some students use their free-speech rights irresponsibly, recent news of campus violence should not justify a broad policy of censorship.

“You can’t allow a few students in the school who are irresponsible to jeopardize the rights of those who are responsible,” he said. “The First Amendment is supposed to be an instrument of safety.”

But some courts have been more sympathetic to administrators.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled July 5 against an eighth-grader who filed suit against the Weedsport Central School District in Weedsport, N.Y., alleging that his suspension for instant messaging a violent image calling for the death of a teacher violated his free-speech rights.

The message contained an image of a gun shooting at a person’s head and included the message “Kill Mr. VanderMolen,” the student’s English teacher.

The appeals court decided that the student’s message “crosses the boundary of protected speech and constitutes student conduct that poses a reasonably foreseeable risk.”

Hiestand, who said he disagreed with the 2nd Circuit’s decision because the speech occurred off campus, said he wishes the court had been more attentive to the fact that the middle school student did not have a violent history and did not show any signs that he would actually carry out his message.

“Kids say stupid things sometimes, and it’s just talk in most cases,” Hiestand said. “We get into trouble when we start punishing people for their thoughts or solely for their speech.”

But other advocates said this case might be an exception to free-speech protections because the specificity of the student’s message could be interpreted as a death threat.

“The concept of a ‘material and substantial disruption’ is a whole lot clearer in that case,” Bowen said, referencing the standard set by a 1969 Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which restricted public schools’ power to punish or prohibit student speech.

Often the line is far less clear. The question of when, if ever, student safety supersedes their speech rights hinges on whether violent speech or writing is a precursor to actual violence.

Lochman, the psychology professor at the University of Alabama, said drawing a distinction between harmless talk and a serious threat is a challenging task, though schools should be more concerned if the student has a history of anti-social or violent behavior, or if the student’s speech is directed at a specific person or group.

“We have a better idea today of what potential risk factors for school violence might be,” he said. “But it’s still a difficult question.”