‘Free writing’ assignment shows just how un-free schools can be

Monday, April 30, 2007

The pattern now is as predictable as it is unfortunate: A school shooting horrifies a campus and a community. Media coverage of the tragedy blankets the nation. School hallways, cafeterias and classrooms buzz with rumors, fantasies and threats of more killings. Besieged school officials rely on zero-tolerance policies and police investigations rather than their own judgment. And, while few notice and even fewer care, students’ First Amendment rights become another victim of the crime.

Set into motion by the shootings at Virginia Tech, this pattern is again unfolding across the country. Perhaps nowhere is the pattern clearer, though, than in Cary, Ill.

Allen Lee, an 18-year-old straight-A student, went to his creative writing class at Cary-Grove High School on April 23 with a strong case of senioritis. Eager to begin his career with the Marines and bored by his writing teacher, Lee was in no mood to write what his teacher wanted to read. Instead, he was determined to write what he wanted to write.

That day’s assignment encouraged Lee’s determination. Titled “Free Writing,” the assignment instructed students to “write non-stop for a set period of time. Do not make corrections as you write. Keep writing, even if you have to write something like, ‘I don’t know what to write.’” Moreover, while students previously had been warned not to threaten anyone in their writings, the assignment removed that restriction: “Write whatever comes to your mind. Do not judge or censor what you are writing.”

So Lee wrote. He started with “Blood sex and Booze,” which he later explained was a reference to a song by the band Green Day. Then he wrote, “Drugs Drugs Drugs are fun. Stab, Stab, Stab, S…t…a…b…, poke. 'So I had this dream last night where I went into a building, pulled out two P90s and started shooting everyone …, then had sex with the dead bodies. Well, not really, but it would be funny if I did.'”

A P90, a friend of Lee’s later told the Chicago Tribune, is a science-fiction gun from the television show “Stargate” that also is used in a James Bond video game. Lee later explained that his reference to drugs was a comment on drug use at the school and that he used quotation marks around the comments about shooting and sex because he thought they were words a story character might say.

Lee then wrote several lines criticizing the school district’s four-year English requirement and the inability of citizens to elect qualified local and national leaders. Then he turned his attention to his writing teacher.

“My current English teacher is a control freak intent on setting a gap between herself and her students like a 63 year old white male fortune 500 company CEO, and a illegal immigrant,” Lee wrote. “And baking brownies and rice crispies does not make up for it, way to try and justify yourself as a good teacher while underhandedly looking for complements on your cooking. No quarrel on you qualifications as a writer, but as a teacher, don’t be surprised on inspiring the first [Cary-Grove] shooting.”

Unnerved by the essay — and particularly the last sentence — Lee’s teacher reported it to her department head and principal. School officials then reported the essay to the Cary police. After determining Lee’s teacher was “alarmed and disturbed” by the essay, police arrested Lee while he was walking to school the next morning and charged him with two counts of disorderly conduct — one count for the statement about shooting with the P90s and one for the statement that the teacher might inspire a shooting at the school. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.

The criminal charges, however, are not Lee’s only problem. While he has not been expelled or suspended from school, he has not been allowed to return to Cary-Grove for classes. Instead, he’s being tutored at the school district’s administrative offices. More significantly, the Marines have discharged Lee from their enlistment program, although they have said he can reapply if the charges are dropped.

The charges, however, never should have been filed. Under the First Amendment, Lee’s statements are protected unless a reasonable person would interpret them as a serious expression of an intent to harm. Nothing in Lee’s essay or his past even suggests such an intent.

Lee’s “threat,” after all, was to use imaginary guns, and even in referencing those shootings, Lee wrote he didn’t mean it. He didn’t threaten to shoot his teacher or anyone else. He wrote the essay to fulfill an assignment that encouraged him to express uncensored thoughts. His disciplinary record is clean. The police who searched his home did not find a gun or any other weapon. He even recently passed the psychiatric evaluation he was required to take to enter the Marines.

While we expect school officials and police to resolve doubts about student behavior in favor of safety, the First Amendment requires that those doubts be reasonable. The reasonableness of such doubts, courts have said, often depends on whether the student has a record of violence, whether he is menacing or just angry and whether he is acting alone or in response to an assignment. Applying these tests, a court is likely to find the officials’ concerns about Lee’s behavior were unreasonable.

At this point, however, the fact that Lee stands a good chance of defeating the charges probably is of little solace. The harm he has suffered — unlike that he is accused of threatening — is real. Whether that harm can be undone remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, Lee’s will not be the last case in which school officials overreact to perceived threats. While many undoubtedly will argue such overreactions are a small price to pay for school safety, we must resist — and help school officials resist — both that argument and the fear on which it is based. For fear, as we’ve learned, is freedom’s most dangerous enemy.

Editor’s note: Douglas Lee and Allen Lee are not related.

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