8th Circuit: Student’s gory essay qualifies as ‘true threat’

Monday, August 18, 2008

ST. LOUIS — The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a Minnesota teen who was briefly held after writing a gory essay in which a student shoots a teacher.

The three-judge panel upheld the summary judgment of U.S. District Judge John Tunheim against former Cook County High School student David Riehm and his mother, Colleen.

They sued the Minnesota school district and Cook County for damages, alleging the case violated the teen's First Amendment rights, among other claims. The 8th Circuit panel rejected those claims in Riehm v. Engelking.

In late 2004 and early 2005, the then-17-year-old Riehm wrote three essays his creative writing teacher found disturbing. The last of them was a particularly gory account of a student shooting his creative writing teacher in the face.

Riehm was suspended from school and later held in a psychiatric unit for three nights before being released.

The unanimous panel ruled the essay was a “true threat” that was not protected by the First Amendment and that the district and county officials responded to it in good faith. The teacher “quite reasonably felt personally threatened,” the court wrote.

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