Issue 92, Winter 2003/2004
The shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, as a practical matter, resulted in the restriction of free expression in the nation’s schools, as much as the 1988 Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, legally authorized limits on student press and speech. Since Columbine and other school shootings, administrators across the country have understandably instituted policies to minimize the likelihood of similar disasters. But common sense does not always prevail and even model students have been expelled and suspended for creating fiction containing violence.
Three recent cases across the country illustrate the problem:
In October in Atlanta, Georgia, 14-year-old honors student Robin Boim was expelled from Roswell High School for writing in her personal journal about a student who fell asleep in class and dreamed that she had killed a teacher. A hearing, in which the state poet laureate and a literary magazine publisher testified to Robin’s creativity and the non-threatening nature of her writing, failed to lift her expulsion, but, after press reports, the Board of Education allowed her to return to school, pending a future hearing.
In San Jose, California, a 15-year-old spent 90 days in detention and was expelled from Santa Teresa High School for writing poetry school officials considered too violent. In 2001, "Julius" was prosecuted for showing two classmates his "dark" poem including one with the line "I can be the next kid to bring guns to kill students at school." In an amicus brief filed in the California Supreme Court opposing criminal charges against him, Nobel and Pulitzer literary prize winners J.M. Coetzee and Michael Chabon, wrote: "Poetry is an artistic medium particularly well suited for the examination of one’s own potential for depravity. The developing genre of ‘dark poetry,’ as practiced by ‘Julius’, is merely a continuation of this literary tradition." NCAC joined the free speech and literary groups’ brief.
Eleven-year-old Dylan Finkle, a student at H. B. Thompson Middle School in Syosset, New York, was subjected to psychological testing in November, without parental permission, and suspended after he read aloud in class a novel from his journal based on the teenage slasher movie, Halloween.
Dylan had discussed his novel with his parents who agreed that he could use his own name as the fictional killer and his friends’ names as victims if they gave permission. He was suspended by school officials for more than six weeks for making "threats of violence." Moreover, school administrators telephoned parents of students who were named in the novel to tell them that Dylan had threatened their children without explaining it was just a story. Appeals to the School Board to lift the suspension were unsuccessful. The case is under review by the State Education Commissioner and is being watched closely by the New York Civil Liberties Union and others.