Friday, January 17, 2003
S.C. to Decide if Youth Who Wrote Violent Poetry Committed a Crime
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The California Supreme Court has agreed to review the case of 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.
The case weighs a student’s First Amendment right of expression against the government’s quest to provide a safe campus environment in the wake of shootings at schools across the nation.
Five of the seven high court justices—Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Marvin Baxter, Kathryn M. Werdegar, Joyce L. Kennard, and Janice Rogers Brown—agreed Wednesday to hear In re George T., 102 Cal.App.4th 1422. The petitioner was 15 when he was expelled from Santa Teresa High School and charged under a criminal threats statute.
The 2001 ruling by Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Nazario A. Gonzales was upheld by a divided panel of the Sixth District Court of Appeal. Justice Nathan Mihara, writing for the majority, said the poems—in which the speaker threatened to shoot his classmates and referred to himself as evil—constituted criminal threats and were not protected by the First Amendment because they could substantially disrupt school activities, the Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
George T., known by his friends and family as Julius, was completing his first full week at his new school when, Mihara explained, he handed a written work with the words “dark poetry” on the top line to a student in his honors English class and to another acquaintance in March 2001.
Both girls, who were mere acquaintances, 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 girls testified they felt personally threatened by the words.
The boy’s appellate lawyer, Michael Kresser of the Sixth District Appellate Project, said yesterday the poem was artistic self-expression and his client should never have been prosecuted for speech about things that he may or may not do.
“Freedom of speech and expression to express unpopular or disturbing thoughts is guaranteed by the First Amendment against all state action,” Kresser said. He also said the boy’s prosecution was an exaggerated response to the 1999 Columbine High student shooting that left 15 dead and other student attacks nationwide.
Dissenting Justice Conrad Rushing said there was insufficient evidence that the boy had intended to make a threat or that the girls’ fear was reasonable. Rushing reviewed the poem “Faces” line by line and concluded that Julius, a new student at the school with few friends, gave the poems to the girls because he wished to share his feelings and possibly make new friends, not to threaten them.
Rushing said the poem does not imply the boy would kill. “It does not mean that he has done it, that he will do it or that he wants to do it,” Rushing wrote.
The challenge is California’s second case in a year dealing with similar free speech implications.
Last year, the Third District Court of Appeal overturned the same type of conviction for a boy who drew a picture of a police officer being shot in the head. That boy was previously arrested by the officer on drug-related charges. The appeals court, in reversing the conviction in that case, said there was no immediate threat of harm to the officer.
The high court Wednesday also agreed to decide whether a long-haul trucker could be convicted in California of molesting two of his wife’s grandchildren who accompanied the couple on one of his trips, where the trips originated here but the acts took place outside the state. The Fourth District Court of Appeal upheld the man’s conviction and 21-year prison term in People v. Betts, 102 Cal.App.4th 922.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company