Student Suspended Over Threats to Kill "Midgets, Fags and Negro Bitches" Loses Appeal

Categories: Education
A sophomore in the Hannibal School District fantasized about killing classmates -- but later claimed he was just blowing off steam.
In 2006, a sophomore in the Hannibal, Missouri, school district confided to a classmate in a series of instant messages that he was angry about (what else?) being spurned by a girl. He decided to let the girl live, because, y'know, "I still like her." But he wrote of shooting "everyone else" -- in particular, his older brother, "midgets," "fags" and "negro bitches."

(No word on what the midgets did, much less those other groups, to provoke the kid's ire.)

His classmate grew alarmed; after all, the sophomore had apparently talked to a friend at some point about getting a gun. He was also on meds and, court records say, had a "goth" appearance. In the post-Columbine world, that's enough: The classmate turned over a transcript of the instant messages to an adult -- who then emailed the transcript to the high school principal.

And the principal called the police.
The sophomore, identified in court records only a D.J.M., was taken into juvenile detention. He was held in a psychiatric hospital for a month, and then placed back into juvenile lockup.

The school district swung into action. The principal would later testify before the school board that he'd received "numerous phone calls from concerned parents asking what the school was doing to address D.J.M.'s threats and whether their children were on a rumored hit list." (Parents!)

D.J.M. returned to school the next year and managed to graduate ahead of his class. But his parents appealed that decision -- and later filed a lawsuit -- saying that his suspension violated his First Amendment rights. (Again, parents!!!)

The case was moved to federal court, where the judge ruled in favor of the school district. And the appellate court today upheld that decision, agreeing that the district did not err in taking the instant messages as a threat and acting accordingly.

"D.J.M.'s references to targeted classmates as 'midgets,' 'fags,' and 'negro bitches' are hate-filled comments," the appellate judges write. "His statements that five specific named individuals 'would go' or 'would be the first to die' were real cause for alarm, especially when he talked about using a .357 Magnum that could be borrowed from a friend. The reaction of those who read his messages is evidence that his statements were understood as true threats...The record does not reveal that any person who became aware of D.J.M.'s speech thought he was joking."

And that's a real problem, as the court concludes: "True threats are not protected under the First Amendment....The First Amendment did not require the District to wait and see whether D.J.M.'s talk about taking a gun to school and shooting students would be carried out."

So, the upshot of the court's decision? A school district does have the right to monitor or punish students for their instant messages, if those messages come to their attention or cause disruption. And the First Amendment is not absolute in school settings.

The moral of the story? If a girl dumps you, don't vent by talking about people you intend to kill. And please, leave the midgets out of it. We're pretty sure none of this was their fault whatsoever.

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