8th Circuit backs school after student’s threatening IMs

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Hannibal, Mo., public school officials who suspended a 10th-grader for sending allegedly threatening and disruptive instant messages to another student off-campus did not violate his free speech, a federal appeals court has ruled.

In October 2006, Dylan J. Mardis, then in 10th grade at Hannibal Public School District #60, sent a series of instant messages to his friend Carly Moore. The messages began to worry Moore, who feared that Mardis might act on some of his comments, court documents say. Mardis wrote that “he wanted Hannibal to be known for something” and that he wanted to kill at least five classmates (not identified in court papers). He also told Moore that he had a friend who had a .357 Magnum revolver.

Though Mardis contended later that his comments were made in jest, Moore apparently took at least some of them seriously and told an adult. She also told Principal Darin Powell and other school officials. The officials suspended Mardis for 10 days and then extended the suspension to the rest of the school year. Police interviewed Mardis and placed him in juvenile detention. He was evaluated in a psychiatric hospital, released on Nov. 28, 2006, and later was graduated from high school.

However, Mardis sued in Missouri state court, alleging a violation of his First Amendment rights. The school defendants had the case removed to federal court. In January 2009, U.S. District Judge Jean C. Hamilton dismissed much of Mardis’ lawsuit. She declared that his speech constituted a true threat and was substantially disruptive of school within the meaning of the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

Hamilton reasoned that Mardis “had the requisite intent to communicate his threat because he communicated his statements to Carly Moore.” Mardis should have known that some of his comments could be communicated to his allegedly prospective victims, the judge wrote. She added that Mardis’ comments created a substantial disruption in part because school officials had to deal with numerous parental complaints: “Parents threatened to remove their children from school, which certainly constitutes a substantial disruption to the educational process.”

Mardis appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Yesterday a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit unanimously ruled in favor of school officials in D.J.M. v. Hannibal Public School District #60.

Even though Mardis did not directly communicate threatening statements to the unidentified students, he did communicate the statements to Carly Moore (identified only as “C.M.” in the 8th Circuit opinion) and that was enough for the panel.  “Since D.J.M. (Mardis is also identified only by his initials) intentionally communicated his threats to C.M., a third party, the district court did not err in finding that they were true threats.”

The appeals court panel noted other pertinent factors, including Mardis’ “admitted depression, his expressed access to weapons and his statement that he wanted Hannibal ‘to be known for something.’”

The panel also found that school officials had acted reasonably under the Tinker “substantial disruption” test.

“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 certain students would be carried out,” the panel wrote. “Here, it was reasonably foreseeable that D.J.M.’s threats about shooting specific students in school would be brought to the attention of school authorities and create a risk of substantial disruption within the school environment.”

Though the appeals court found that the student’s online speech in this case was threatening and disruptive enough to warrant discipline, the judges recognized that they were delving into difficult legal terrain.

“The widespread use of instant messaging by students in and out of school presents new First Amendment challenges for school officials,” the court wrote. “School officials cannot constitutionally reach out to discover, monitor, or punish any type of out of school speech.” But, the appeals court added, school officials have a paramount responsibility to protect students in school.

It is a difficult task to balance student-speech rights with safety considerations. In the Dylan Mardis case, the appeals court struck the balance in favor of school officials. Mardis may have been joking when he made some of his statements online, but in a post-Columbine, Virginia Tech world, school officials often will get the benefit of the doubt.

Tags: , , ,