11th Circuit backs teen’s suspension for penning violent story

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

A Georgia high school that suspended a student for writing a violent story did not violate the student’s First Amendment rights, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Rachel Boim was a ninth grader at Roswell High School in 2003 when a teacher confiscated her notebook during an art class. In the notebook was a story labeled “Dream,” describing the shooting of a male math teacher during sixth period. Boim had math class during sixth period with a male teacher.

Boim was suspended, and her parents sued the Fulton County School District and school officials. In the lawsuit the Boims asked for the suspension to be removed from Rachel’s disciplinary record and for legal fees and expenses. A district court judge ruled in favor of the school district in August 2006. A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling on July 31 in a 3-0 decision.

“Literary merit and technique notwithstanding, Rachel’s first-person narrative could reasonably be construed as a threat of physical violence against her sixth-period math teacher,” Judge Joel F. Dubina wrote for the court in Boim v. Fulton County School District.

In the narrative’s climax during the sixth-period class, Boim wrote, “Yes, my math teacher. I lothe [sic] him with every bone in my body. … This is it. 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.”

According to court papers, when questioned by school administrators Boim and her parents dismissed the narrative as creative fiction without an intent to harm anyone. A lawyer for Boim also said that Boim had no prior disciplinary record and was a writer for the school’s newspaper, according to the Fulton County Daily Report.

However, Dubina mentioned instances of at least 10 school shootings in the eight years before Boim’s incident. He also noted the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act stipulation that students who attend dangerous schools be allowed to transfer to another, again emphasizing the need for school administrators to be aware of safety on campus. Dubina said the June U.S. Supreme Court ruling against a student in the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case (Morse v. Frederick) reaffirmed that courts may allow administrators to take safety precautions in their schools.

“In this climate of increasing school violence and government oversight, and in light of schools’ undisputably compelling interest in acting quickly to prevent violence on school property, especially during regular school hours, we must conclude that the defendants did not violate Rachel’s First Amendment rights,” Dubina wrote.

“We can only imagine what would have happened if the school officials, after learning of Rachel’s writing, did nothing about it and the next day Rachel did in fact come to school with a gun and shoot and kill her math teacher. In our view, it is imperative that school officials have the discretion and authority to deal with incidents like the one they faced in this case,” he said.

Senior Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh, visiting from the Eastern District of Missouri, joined Dubina’s opinion. Judge Susan H. Black wrote a separate concurrence in which she cited Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist. and said this incident would have caused a substantial disruption to “the rights of other students” according to the Tinker test.

An attorney for the school district told the Fulton County Daily Report that this ruling indicated the 11th Circuit has a concern for school safety.

“They have taken the position — which we obviously believe is right — that school officials can take reasonable action when they believe that there [are] threats to the safety of school officials or students,” said Eric A. Brewton of Brock, Clay, Calhoun, & Rogers in Marietta, Ga.

Courtney Holliday is a junior majoring in economics and public policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

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