Court: ‘Why racism is wrong’ essay is right penalty for juvenile

Thursday, August 2, 2012

An Ohio judge did not violate the First Amendment rights of a juvenile offender when he ordered the young man to write a 1,000-word essay on why racism is wrong, a state appeals court has ruled.

In February 2011, a juvenile known in court papers as T.M. got into a fight with another student on school grounds. T.M. contended the other student began directing racial slurs at him on the school bus and slapping his head. T.M. admitted he then hit the student several times after they arrived at school.

T.M. faced charges of being a delinquent child in connection with disorderly conduct at school. The prosecutor brought evidence that T.M. had also used racially charged language during the fight. The Huron County Court of Common Pleas, Juvenile Division judge determined that T.M. was delinquent (the term used for a juvenile who is found to have committed a criminal offense).

The prosecutor recommended that as part of his punishment, T.M. must write 1,000 words on “why racism is wrong.” The juvenile judge, who was not identified, accepted the recommendation. But T.M.’s attorney contended that compelling T.M. to write such an essay amounted to “thought control.”

On appeal, T.M. contended that the essay-writing order was also viewpoint discrimination. However, the Ohio appeals court, 6th Appellate District, disagreed in its July 27 opinion in In Re T.M.

“To the contrary, the First Amendment is not remotely implicated,” the appeals court wrote. “The court imposed no restrictions on appellant’s right to engage in free speech.”

The appeals court reasoned that juvenile court judges have broad discretion to fashion remedies and punishments designed to hold offenders accountable and to rehabilitate them. According to the appeals court, the juvenile court judge’s order would be impermissible only if it was considered an abuse of discretion — a high legal standard to meet.

The appeals court noted that the two young men engaged in “racially-oriented verbal insults” and that the “trial court’s order, tailored as it was to the offense, was in no way unreasonable, arbitrary or unconscionable.”

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