A creative-writing story about an angry student who beheaded his teacher with a machete was not a true threat of violence, but instead a form of speech protected by the First Amendment, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled last month.
But in another case decided the same day, the court ruled that a student’s statement that he planned to “do something similar” to the 1999 shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School was an illegal threat that warranted punishment in the juvenile-justice system.
The state high court used the two May 16 rulings to try to draw a line between protected speech and serious threats of violence, as educators and law-enforcement officials struggle to react both legally and effectively to warning signs of student violence.
“It’s one of these situations where in each case you have to apply the standard to the particular facts,” said assistant attorney general Jeffrey Kassel, who argued both cases for the state.
In the first case, an Oconto County boy was found guilty of disorderly conduct after he turned in a writing assignment that described how a student decapitated his teacher with a machete after she told him to be quiet in class.
The Supreme Court found the boy’s story did not constitute a “true threat,” which would be outside the First Amendment protections and possibly covered by the disorderly conduct law.
In the second case, the court unanimously upheld an appeals court decision to reinstate a disorderly conduct charge against a De Forest boy who told friends he was going to kill everyone at his middle school six days after the shootings in Littleton, Colo.
The court ruled the boy could be prosecuted for disorderly conduct and found that his comments were “true threats.”