Student poet's felony conviction overturned


Calif. Supreme Court: Schools must balance safety concerns, student freedom of expression





CALIFORNIA — The felony conviction of a Santa Teresa High School student who wrote “dark poetry” was overturned by the California Supreme Court, which ruled in July that protecting school safety and freedom of expression were “not necessarily antagonistic goals.” 

The student, referred to in court documents at “George T.,” served 100 days in juvenile hall during his sophomore year after showing a classmate a poem that read in part: “For I can be the next kid to bring guns to kill students at school. So parents watch your children cuz I’m back.”

The court ruled the writing did not constitute a threat. 

“The fact remains that ‘can’ does not mean ‘will,’” wrote Justice Carlos R. Moreno in the court’s unanimous decision. “While the protagonist in ‘Faces’ declares that he has the potential or capacity to kill students given his dark and hidden feelings, he does not actually threaten to do so.”

Several free-speech advocates who filed briefs supporting George hailed the decision as a victory for free expression. 

“The court’s decision makes clear that students’ creative works deserve the same level of First Amendment protection as that accorded to established poets, authors and artists,” said Ann Brick, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. 

The court did not rule as to whether the school’s expulsion of George was permissible, noting that the scope of its decision only related to his conviction.

Michael Kresser, George’s attorney, said he does not yet know if George, who graduated in June, and his family would seek to remove the expulsion from his school record. 

“He does feel unfairly treated by the school for something that was, according to the California Supreme Court, within his First Amendment rights,” he said. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Chabon, on behalf of the ACLU of Northern California, the First Amendment Project and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case that described the literary importance of expressing “dark” or “confessional” poetry and argued that “Faces” fit that genre.  

Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey M. Laurence, who represented the prosecution, argued that threatening speech is not protected by the First Amendment. 

For something to be considered a criminal threat under California law, it must be “on its face and under the circumstances in which it is made, [be] so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate and specific as to convey … a gravity of purpose and an immediate prospect of execution of the threat.” 

In 2001, George handed two poems to a fellow student, while leaving an English class on March 16 — only 11 days after a school shooting in Santee in which two students were killed and 13 were injured. George, who had attended Santa Teresa High School for only two weeks, wrote to her in a note, “These poems describe me and my feelings. Tell me if they describe you and your feelings.”

In a juvenile court hearing, George said he never meant the poetry as a threat, according to an article in The Los Angeles Times. He said he was having a bad day after his parents forgot to give him lunch money and he misplaced something he needed. 

The student, however, became frightened after reading “Faces” and contacted her English teacher who notified school administrators and the police. 

In a concurring ruling, Justice Marvin Baxter emphasized that school officials and police were right to investigate the potential threat, as the fear the poem created for the other student was real. 

“School and law enforcement officials had every reason to worry that [George], deeply troubled, was contemplating his own campus killing spree,” he wrote. “The authorities were fully justified, and should be commended, insofar as they made a prompt, full, and vigorous response to the incident.”

David Greene, at attorney for the First Amendment Project, said the ruling provides guidance for law enforcement.

“We hope law enforcement will show as great an appreciation for the subtlety, complexity and legitimacy of artistic expression as was shown today by the California Supreme Court,” he said.

CASE: The People v. George T., No. S111780 (Calif. Sup. Ct.  July 22, 2004)


California, Fall 2004, reports, Santa Teresa High School