Criminalizing Speech

An 11 year old boy was arrested in Colorado for drawing a stick figure depiction in class of himself shooting people. This news article jumps out at at me for for a few reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the police department is guilty of an egregious overstepping of bounds for which I hope they are eventually held accountable. The only legitimate justification for police involvement in a situation like this would be if the drawing constituted a legitimate threat. Since the caption written was a statement of opinion (all teachers must die) rather than a statement of intent and since the drawing was not intended for or conveyed to the anyone else, the drawing does not even begin to meet the the base criteria of a genuine threat. This goes some way to explaining why the child in question was hit with the the rather nebulous charge of “interfering with staff and students at an educational facility” rather than being charged with making a threat per se. It is my position that the charge of interfering with staff and students was intended to apply to older students or adults who disrupted school in a violent manner or in a fashion that prevented normal day to day school activities. The classic example would be setting off a false fire alarm. While I believe the student in question should have been disciplined in some fashion by the school, a criminal charge in this instance was not an appropriate reaction in this case.

Among the other reasons this case draws my interest is the similarity to the Megan Meier case in which Lori Drew was alleged to have taunted Mean with online messages which included “The world would be better off without you” which also is a statement of opinion. In that case the public was further outraged for reasons which were specific to this case which were:

  • Much of the online communication involved deception
  • Lori Drew was an adult whereas Megan Meier was a child
  • Megan was under psychiatric care for depression, and:
  • She subsequently killed herself
  • Despite the additional factors in that case which ignited public sentiment against Lori Drew in that case, I believe criminal charges were also unwarranted in that case. My point here is not that Lori Drew is a commendable or even a decent person. It is simply that the bulk of the public’s outrage against here stemmed from the issues listed above which in and of themselves are not actionable offenses in a court of law. If Lori Drew had typed “the world would be better off without you” to her ex-husband rather than to her daughter’s classmate it wouldn’t have been considered newsworthy even if the ex-husband had killed himself after receiving the message. Certainly if that had been the case there wouldn’t have been the public demand to have her brought up on charges.

    While perhaps the majority of Americans would like to have seen Lori Drew prosecuted in some fashion for the messages she typed to Megan Meier, most of these same people would support the individuals’ right to make similar remarks depending on the person targeted by such speech. It is problematic and perhaps impossible to craft legislation intended to snare the Lori Drews of the world while exempting everybody else and such attempts are bound to lead to absurd results such as the present case of this 11 year old being arrested for drawing a picture (and I should point out that the age of the person has no bearing in this case as I would also defend the right of a 25 year old to draw a similar picture and caption provided that it wasn’t being sent out as an implied threat.) In a nation of laws it is not small thing to propose new legislation (laws against “cyber bullying” come readily to mind) and as a society we should be aware that the practical application of such often come with unintended consequences. As in most cases, prudence demands that we should err on the side of caution and in this case I think that means that we should be loathe to put forth or enforce legislation that criminalizes words or symbolic speech.

    In short, there are legitimate instances where certain types of speech are not protected by right. It is against the law to threaten people or incite others to commit crimes as well as to defame, slander people, or to commit libel. It is not against the law to say fuck you, the world would be better off without you, or even to state opinions such as “all teachers must die” provided those statements aren’t sent in a fashion intended to intimidate others. In a free society there is no right to be protected from objectionable speech, at least not as a matter of law, although a school or other place of employment is certainly free to enforce their own standards by means of suspending or even expelling student violators. This case of the child being arrested in Colorado is a case where the police department got it wrong. As a nation we should take this as a lesson and strive to avoid similar instances in the future. If we do not, as an individual I reserve the right to compose scathing blog entries flaming people who simply don’t get it.

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    5 comments
    1. RainbowAlly said:

      While I agree with you that the boy who drew the picture shouldn’t have faced criminal charges, I cannot agree at all with you about Lori Drew. The woman was harassing the teen in question and using intimidation that went far beyond a single sentence. She admitted to posting numerous messages and targeted the girl in question with the purpose of inflicting mental anguish. This woman is sick and deserves to be charged for her crime…and it WAS a crime. Cyber Bullying is a serious issue and has real life affects on those being bullied. People must be held accountable.

    2. From my understanding, her actions, while deplorable under moral standards, did not rise the criminal level under the existing law at the time. The infliction of emotional distress is the language of a civil lawsuit (I know that won’t be very palatable for people who want to see Lori Drew thrown under the bus but for what it’s worth, that option is always there). As far as cyber bullying, I don’t know how you can even define that without running the risk of criminalizing a whole gamut of speech such as angry emails and blog rants. Back in my day, bullying meant having someone smash your glasses, punch you in the face, and steal your Addidas. The use of words was the alternative to violence and that was seen as the proper way to settle disputes. If words can now be criminalized, I am going to have to think of a new set of problem solving techniques, perhaps redrawing county lines so that my enemys’ property will now fall outside the US border. Things will get really complicated.

      p.s. I don’t mean to make light of the Megan Meier situation which I consider a tragedy. Suicide might be a valid option for older people who live with chronic untreatable pain (I’m not going to make that call because I’m not in that position and I am therefore not in a position to rule it out for those who suffer from that). The tragedy is that she took her own life and all my arguments aside as a parent myself and as a human being I really wish she hadn’t done that.

    3. Everyone wants to say the police over-reacted, but I representative a group of citizens who’ve lost family members to stick person violence, and we think the police acted appropriately.

    4. I watched the Youtube clip and it brought all the painful memories back.

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