State appeals court reverses teen’s conviction for post-Columbine comments

Tuesday, December 28, 1999

A 15-year-old student from a Louisiana public high school was improperly declared delinquent for comments he made at school following the Columbine tragedy, a state appeals court recently ruled.

Two days after the tragedy in Littleton, Colo., last April, the teen, identified in court documents only as R.T., allegedly said that he might commit acts of violence at Jonesboro-Hodge High School.

R.T. was charged under two state laws, one prohibiting communication of false information of planned arson and the other an anti-terrorism statute.

Prosecutors charged R.T. under the planned arson statute because he allegedly answered yes to a classmate who asked whether he would blow up the school.

According to the classmate, R.T. said: “I'm gone [sic] do it when everybody least expect [sic] it and kill as many people as [I] can.”

R.T. was charged with violating the anti-terrorism statute because he allegedly told another classmate in biology class that it would be easy to kill all the students in class.

After being declared delinquent and sentenced to a year in the custody of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Correction, R.T. appealed.

The state appeals court reversed the finding of delinquency, saying that there was insufficient evidence to convict him under either statute.

R.T.'s attorneys had argued that the laws were unconstitutional because they violated the First Amendment right of free speech. They contended that a law which criminalizes communication that the witness knows to be false punishes speech protected by the First Amendment.

The state appeals court noted in State, In the Interest of R.T. that “First Amendment rights are accorded a preferred place in our democratic society.” However, the court wrote in its Dec. 23 opinion: “As speech strays further from the values of persuasion, dialogue and free exchange of ideas the First Amendment was designed to protect and moves toward threats made with specific intent to perform illegal acts, the state has greater latitude to effectively neutralize verbal expression.”

The appeals court compared false communication of bomb threats to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' classic example of unprotected speech: falsely shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater. (In the 1925 decision Schenck v. United States, Holmes wrote: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”)

Even though the statutes were judged constitutional, the appeals court ruled in favor of R.T. because the state had failed to show that the students to whom R.T. allegedly made the comments received them as threats.

The appeals court said it was left with “considerable doubt” as to whether some of the attributed comments were true threats or the remarks of someone “speaking purely hypothetically.”

Walter E. May Jr., the district attorney whose office prosecuted R.T., said that he would review the decision to determine whether to appeal.

“At this point in time we have not made a final decision,” he said. “Most probably, we will not take the case any further. [But] the case raises some interesting constitutional issues. To me, the statements of the juvenile were analogous to shouting 'Fire' in a crowded theater.”

The attorneys for R.T. could not be reached for comment.