By Tim Cushing
The intersection of school administration and law enforcement leads directly to insanity. All logic goes out the window when school administrators come across something that makes them feel slightly uncomfortable. Adding cops to the mix doesn’t help anything. It only serves to turn every mildly misbehaving student into a criminal.
We’re here to talk about bombs. I’m sorry. Let me clarify. Not actual bombs. Drawings of bombs. Drawings created by students who are likely to draw bombs, guns, and general violent mayhem without actually wishing any of that on their fellow students.
It took a couple of rounds in court to actually set this right. We’ve covered similar insanity over drawings of bombs here at Techdirt before, like the (temporarily) indefinite suspension of an autistic student who drew a bomb that looked like something straight out of a Looney Tunes short.
This bomb drawing was a little more intricate but no more threatening than the round black bomb with a fuse we’ve all seen in any number of cartoons no one saw fit to prosecute. (h/t Ari Cohn)
The Wisconsin Court of Appeals has finally ended the madness that began with terroristic threat and disorderly conduct charges being leveled against a middle school student.
The decision [PDF] recounts the unfortunate chain of events that ultimately needed to be addressed by the penultimate level of the state’s criminal justice system.
The court found the following facts. In 2018, A.N.G. and T.B. were classmates in a middle school summer school program. During class one day, T.B. created a drawing on a page in his science workbook. T.B. did all the drawing and writing, but A.N.G. contributed ideas.
The drawing contained T.B. and A.N.G.’s names, images of what appears to be a cartoon-style bomb, a building labeled “school,” and a body lying on the ground. Around these images are written the following words: “pigs,” “preplay,” “bomb,” and “gun.” The court determined that the content of the drawing “conveys a threat of bodily harm.”
The Appeals Court points out something the lower court mentioned, but erroneously failed to give appropriate weight during its handling of the case.
However, as will be significant in analysis below, the court also specifically found that T.B. and A.N.G. did not intend for the drawing to be “for public consumption.” Instead, the court found, T.B. and A.N.G. intended to keep it “private.”
If it’s private, no one’s attempting to threaten others. That undercuts the charges brought against the student, which rely on communication of a threat. Instead, the court assumed even a private sharing of violent ideas between two students was enough to satisfy the charges because anything containing bombs and whatever would be viewed as “threatening” by interlopers the creators never intended to share their drawing with.
Returning to the circuit court’s decision, the court stated that it considered it “impossible,” “in the atmosphere in which we live,” that “a student would create a document like this and not assume a reasonable person would interpret” it as a “threat” that was “a serious expression of an intent to do harm.”
Wrong, says the Appeals Court. The surrounding circumstances matter. A person entertaining themselves by drawing depictions of violent dismemberment in their own home cannot be considered “threatening” to others in the legal sense because there’s no communication of these subjective “threats” to others. Just because a teacher saw it and decided to get involved doesn’t change the legal math.
However, as discussed below, this observation assumes an intended recipient of, or (using the term from First Amendment doctrine) “listener” to, the document, and in this case there was no intended recipient-listener.
The state’s arguments are nonsensical and the court gives them no sympathy.
The State argues that the drawing was a true threat because it was not created as part of a classroom assignment or a creative school-related expression. The State also contends that it was not mere hyperbole or an innocuous joke. Further, the State argues that the drawing was not reasonably intended to be kept private because it was reasonably foreseeable to A.N.G. that it would be seen in the school setting by school staff or other students who would interpret it as a serious expression of a purpose to inflict harm, and that, when it was discovered, school officials did reasonably interpret it this way.
The court says the state’s argument inverts First Amendment protections to strip them from anyone whose communications are inadvertently witnessed by others. An inadvertent discovery is not the same thing as a distributed communication originating from the now-unintended “sender.”
I see no reasonable way to construe the findings of the circuit court and the uncontested testimony at the hearing to reflect that A.N.G. meant to cause the drawing to come to the teacher’s attention, or to the attention of any other school staff or students other than T.B., its co-creator. Based on the circuit court’s findings and the uncontested evidence, the teacher’s awareness of the drawing and decision to demand it were just accidental from A.N.G.’s point of view.
There’s a criminal prosecution involved and yet the school’s actions — once the disturbing artwork had been inadvertently discovered — do not reflect the state’s assertions that administrators felt justifiably threatened by their discovery. If the school felt violence was imminent, it certainly didn’t act like it did.[E]ven if I were to assume that school personnel could reasonably be classified as “listeners,” how these “listeners reacted to the” drawing (as Perkins refers to the first factor) does not weigh heavily towards classifying the drawing as a true threat. Based on the testimony of the teacher and administrators involved, the circuit court found that the drawing was “obviously concerning [to the school] and obviously the school took steps within the school setting to address these issues.” Yet, they did not take it so seriously that there was an evacuation or a search of the school. Further, instead of seeking to have A.N.G. removed from the school, administrators placed A.N.G. in an in-school suspension and did not impose more significant discipline. The assistant principal testified that she takes seriously all expressions that she construes to be threats, suggesting a low threshold for school reaction to any and all conduct that might represent a danger.
Constitutional rights for students may be limited but they’re not nonexistent.
Weighing all of the above considerations under the Perkins factors, I conclude that A.N.G.’s private drawing was not a true threat in the constitutional sense. Based on all of the circumstances, a reasonable “speaker” in A.N.G.’s position would not foresee that a reasonable “listener”—someone he never in fact envisioned—would interpret the drawing as a serious expression of a purpose to inflict harm. Case law interpreting the First Amendment protects from prosecution the expressions under the particular facts here.
Away goes the delinquency petition tied to two trumped-up charges that never fit the crime the student never committed. When you put kids, cops, school administrators, and a post-9/11 “everything is a threat” mentality in the same room, idiotic decisions get made and lawsuits get filed. A little bit of rational thinking would go a long way. Unfortunately for this student, it took two years for cooler heads to prevail.