Student’s talk of blowing up school not protected

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A high school student in Huntington, N.Y., who said at school he was “going to just blow this place up” did not have his First Amendment rights violated when he was suspended, a state court has ruled.

The incident occurred in March 2009 at Half Hollow Hills High School East in Suffolk County. A ninth-grade student, known in court papers as “Student with a Disability R,” made the comment about blowing up the school and added, “don’t come to school on Friday.” Student R made these remarks to fellow students and a teacher.

The teacher reported them to an assistant principal. The assistant principal and principal discussed the matter with R and could not determine whether he had any real intention of carrying out violence or whether he was joking. They called the student’s father, Mohamed Saad-El-Din, and the police.

R received an immediate five-day suspension. A hearing officer investigated the matter and recommended an additional 25-day suspension, which the school district superintendent accepted. The student and his father appealed this punishment to the commissioner of education, who agreed with the punishment.

R and his father challenged the commissioner’s decision in state court. The petitioners contended school officials violated R.’s First Amendment free-speech rights by punishing him for speech when he never intended to carry out any threat.

On Oct. 25, the Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, 3rd Department, rejected the petitioners’ First Amendment argument in Matter of Mohamed Saad-El-Din v. Steiner. The state court applied the standard from the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous student-speech decision, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969).

In Tinker, the high court ruled that school officials violated the free-speech rights of several students by punishing them for wearing black peace armbands. The Court said school officials cannot punish students unless they can reasonably forecast that their speech will cause a substantial disruption of school.

R and his father contended R should be protected because R never intended any harm and had no intent to cause any violence. The New York court rejected this argument, noting: “Whether student R. uttered the statements as a joke or never intended to carry out the threat is irrelevant.”

What was relevant, according to the court, was the disruption the comments caused. The court said the comments forced school officials to summon the police, who conducted interviews and an investigation at school.

The court also emphasized that R’s comments were made to fellow students, who might readily tell other students and their parents. Such news could cause parents to become fearful for their children’s safety.

“Under these circumstances, we conclude that school officials could have reasonably concluded that student R.’s statements would substantially disrupt the school environment, and their resulting decision to suspend him was not violative of his constitutional right to free speech,” the court wrote.

This court found a “reasonable forecast of substantial disruption” in school officials’ interviewing people, police conducting interviews and an investigation, and the potential for parents to become frightened about a possible school shooter.

The decision shows that courts often give substantial deference to school officials in the area of allegedly threatening statements by students.  Even if the statement is nothing more than a joke, school officials may investigate and call the police.

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