Friday, July 23, 2004
Youth’s Authorship of Violent Poem Not a Crime, S.C. Rules
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A teenager who was committed to a juvenile facility for several months, followed by several more months of electronically monitored home detention, for writing violent poetry at school did not make a criminal threat, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a unanimous decision, the justices overturned a ruling by a divided panel of the Sixth District Court of Appeal. The majority there held the writings constituted criminal threats and were not protected by the First Amendment because they could substantially disrupt school activities.
The constitutional implications of the decision led to the filing of an amicus brief in support of the youth on behalf of a dozen well-known writers and poets as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Feminists for Free Expression, the First Amendment Project, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the PEN American Center and PEN USA.
Justice Carlos Moreno, writing for the high court, noted that the statute, Penal Code Sec. 422, has been upheld against First Amendment challenges. But because the statute has the potential to infringe upon protected speech, he explained, an appellate court must independently review the evidence to determine whether the statements at issue were a true threat under the circumstances.
In this case, he concluded, “the ambiguous nature of the poem, along with the circumstances surrounding its dissemination, fail to establish that the poem constituted a criminal threat.”
George T., as he was identified in the opinion, was 15 when he was expelled from Santa Teresa High School in Santa Clara County and charged under the criminal threats statute.
George, known by his friends and family as Julius, was completing his first full week at his new school when he allegedly handed his poems, labeled “Dark Poetry” at the top of the paper, to a student in his honors English class and to another girl in March 2001.
The girls said they became upset when they read the poems in which the narrator referred to himself as “Dark, Destructive & Dangerous” and called himself evil. In one poem, “Faces,” Julius wrote, “I can be the next kid to bring guns to kill students at school” and warned parents to watch their children “cuz I’m BACK.”
The fellow honors student testified she was fearful and upset when she read the papers. Julius testified that he did not intend or expect to frighten anyone, and that he thought the recipients would understand that he was joking.
In concluding that no threat was made, Moreno acknowledged that Julius’ fellow honors student, Mary S., testified that she was frightened. But her fright apparently rested on her own interpretation of the poem, not on what Julius actually wrote, the justice said.
Not only was the language of the poem ambiguous, the jurist went on to say, but the circumstances to which the witnesses testified were not suggestive of a threat “so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific as to convey to the person threatened, a gravity of purpose and an immediate prospect of execution of the threat,” as the statute requires.
“[T]here was no history of animosity or conflict between the students...no threatening gestures or mannerisms accompanied the poem...and no conduct suggested to Mary and Erin that there was an immediate prospect of execution of a threat to kill,” Moreno wrote.
Citing the amicus brief, Moreno noted that famous poets such as Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell popularized “dark” or “confessional” poetry that explores “extraordinarily mean, ugly, violent, or harrowing experiences.”
Moreno added the caveat that schools do have the right to act for the protection of their students, and said the school officials’ reaction was understandable in light of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and those that occurred in Santee, Calif. not long before the incident involving Julius.
But the issue before the high court, he explained, was not the propriety of the school’s actions but only whether Julius had committed a crime.
Justice Marvin Baxter, in a separate concurrence, said the writings were “menacing by any common understanding,” but agreed they failed to meet the high threshold required by Sec. 422.
“Under these circumstances, as the majority observe, school and law enforcement officials had every reason to worry that defendant, deeply troubled, was contemplating his own campus killing spree. The important interest that underlies the criminal-threat law—protection against the trauma of verbal terrorism—was also at stake. Accordingly, the authorities were fully justified, and should be commended, insofar as they made a prompt, full, and vigorous response to the incident. They would have been remiss had they not done so. Nothing in our very narrow holding today should be construed as suggesting otherwise.”
The case is In re George T., 04 S.O.S. 3770.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company