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Careful With That Essay:

The Chicago Tribune reports:

A Cary-Grove High School student charged with disorderly conduct for writing a violently descriptive class essay had received an assignment that said: "Write whatever comes to your mind. Do not judge or censor what you are writing." ...

[Allen] Lee's English teacher, Nora Capron, and school officials found the senior's stream-of-consciousness writing so alarming that they turned it over to Cary police, who arrested him Tuesday morning while he was walking to school.

Carroll said the complaint against Lee quotes his essay as saying: "Blood, sex and booze. Drugs, drugs, drugs are fun. Stab, stab, stab, stab, stab, s ... t ... a ... b ..., puke. So I had this dream last night where I went into a building, pulled out two P90s and started shooting everyone, then had sex with the dead bodies. Well, not really, but it would be funny if I did."

According to Carroll, another passage said, "as a teacher, don't be surprised on inspiring the first CG shooting."

Carroll said the two misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct in the amended complaint filed Thursday refer to both passages....

Lee's essay, written in class Monday, also refers to lyrics from a song by the band Green Day and violent images from a Super Mario Bros. video game, according to Jamie Emling, a close friend of Lee's who is in the same creative-writing class....

It may well be quite reasonable for a high school to look closely at someone who writes this sort of essay, and even suspend him while they're evaluating him. Sometimes off-the-cuff writing, even seemingly fictional writing, may offer a window into what someone is really thinking. Writing such material in high schools — or even colleges — these days is also pretty poor judgment.

But it seems to me that treating the essay as a criminally punishable threat, especially when it's written as a response to a writing assignment that expressly calls on people to write unpolished, unthought-through, and quite possibly fictional prose, is rather an overreaction, even despite the most troubling element of the essay, "as a teacher, don't be surprised on inspiring the first CG shooting." It's also probably an unconstitutional overreaction, as the Wisconsin Supreme Court held in the very similar In re Douglas D. (2001) (though see, for a different result on somewhat different facts, In re George T., 126 Cal.Rptr.2d 364 (Cal. App. 2002)). That someone's speech bears investigation, or even school discipline, doesn't mean that it ought to be criminally punished.

Nels Nelson (mail):

violent images from a Super Mario Bros. video game


Is that the one where a Shy Guy steals all of Luigi's coins, or is the other one where Baby Yoshi uses his "ground pound" to knock King Bowser off of a cloud?
4.30.2007 3:09pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
It's the mental health of a teacher who tells high schoolers "don't censor yourselves" that really needs to be examined.
4.30.2007 3:14pm
SeaDrive:
The lesson learned is to distrust authorities. They never mean what they say.

Do we know if the arrest was made by a law &order republican or a thought-control democrat?
4.30.2007 3:22pm
Sean M:
Isn't a teacher almost asking for this sort of response with that prompt?

I agree with Anderson.

(And if beating the criminal charge doesn't work, I'd hire a very crafty civil litigator. You see, he reasonably relied on the implicit promise that any response would be acceptable, and as a result incurred damages...)
4.30.2007 3:27pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
egad--disorderly conduct for writing fiction?

One fellow told me his son, in a university course, decided to write the most morbidly depressing tale he could think up. Something that would make Edgar Alan Poe look like a musical comedy. He worked hard at it, and achieved the objective. And then got referred to counseling, when the instructor refused to believe that he'd set out with that purpose.
4.30.2007 3:29pm
BobNSF (mail):

another passage said, "as a teacher, don't be surprised on inspiring the first CG shooting."


Which was just his way of saying, "this is a really stupid assignment and YOU should have thought through the consequences, Teach."

Unfortunately, he's paying the (unjustified) penalty for the teacher's idiocy.
4.30.2007 3:37pm
Philistine (mail):
Apparently, the section of the Disorderly Conduct statute with which he has been charged states:


(a) A person commits disorderly conduct when he knowingly:
(1) Does any act in such unreasonable manner as to alarm or disturb another and to provoke a breach of the peace



Even granting that he wrote the story in such an unreasonable manner so as to alarm or disturb others--which seems a stretch--in what possible whay could the essay had any potential to provoke a breach of the peace?
4.30.2007 3:40pm
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
Could part of the problem be that schools are often legally and procedurally hamstrung from enforcing discipline themselves, and as a result have gotten into the habit of invoking their only available discipline tool--law enforcement--at the drop of a hat?
4.30.2007 3:44pm
just my thoughts:
Dan: I would fully agree the schools are in the habit of invoking law enforcement at the drop of a hat...why else would 6-year-old's be facing felony charges? Honestly, I'm surprised this kid was ONLY charged with disorderly conduct.

(Not that I agree with him being criminally charged in the first place...just that I'm surprised)
4.30.2007 4:15pm
Dan Hamilton:
The mistake he made was not making sure that the story said he was killing conservatives and Republicans.

Remember this teacher is from the Kingdom of Chicago. The King (Mayor) doesn't believe in free speach, the second or any of those other rights that get in the Democrat machines way. The children will believe what they are told and be indoctronated like good little Democrats.

The only thing Bluer then Chicago is the Blue Men.
4.30.2007 4:17pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
I agree this shouldn't be a crime, but should be looked at closely by the school.

I wonder if the people who felt that Mel Gibson's drunken rantings were proof-positive of his "true feelings," because his inhibitions were reduced by alcohol, feel the same way about this student's "stream-of-consciousness" writing.


Frankly, I'd be more worried that the kid wrote this violent, bizarre junk in reaction to a "stream of consciousness" assignment than had he written it as part of a regular fiction assignment.
4.30.2007 4:24pm
Joe Bingham (mail):
The kid should be looked at.

The teacher should absolutely be fired. What a horrible person. Seriously, I joke not at all.
4.30.2007 4:43pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
The mistake he made was not making sure that the story said he was killing conservatives and Republicans.

Oh, please.
4.30.2007 4:45pm
Joe Bingham (mail):
Even granting that he wrote the story in such an unreasonable manner so as to alarm or disturb others--which seems a stretch--in what possible whay could the essay had any potential to provoke a breach of the peace?

Actually, in this case, there was that potential, because he was cursed with a particularly stupid, pissy, hysterical teacher.
4.30.2007 4:49pm
Joe Bingham (mail):
Has anyone considered the possibility that the kid actually meant computer-generated shooting? He meant his teacher was inspiring the first first-person shooter computer game! Ah, Wolfenstein 3d. Not quite the first, but still the best.
4.30.2007 4:53pm
PersonFromPorlock:
If the teacher, acting with the authority of the state, requires the student to "Write whatever comes to your mind. Do not judge or censor what you are writing," isn't the state barred from prosecuting the student by reason of compelled self-incrimination?
4.30.2007 4:59pm
hey (mail):
Just another example that all teachers of subjective courses are liars. One should never be honest in a liberal arts course at any level, but instead mimic what the teacher wants. In math and science, there is one answer. 2+2=4, (-1)^(1/2)=i (j in electrical engineering to avoid confusion), f=ma. "write an essay on anything", but if we don't like what you write about you're going to jail. "what are the conclusions from x", but if you don't draw the conclusions I agree with you're wrong, no matter how well written and well argued your essay is.

This is another example of why you should never subject your children to the public school system. Private schools are not only better in terms of the education that they provide, but they are also able to discipline their students, don't rely on police as disciplinarians, and have an incentive to be concerned about the sudent and parents' impression. As always, government monopolies provide disastrously bad service with no regard to the people they are supposedly "serving".
4.30.2007 5:00pm
Dave in the Corn (mail):
Dan, while this may be near Chicago, Cary is by no means as "blue" as Chicago. Cary may as well be downstate, as it's a more an ex-urban area, than suburban really. In fact, it's represented by a republican! Horrors!
4.30.2007 5:02pm
corneille1640 (mail):
I think some of the comments posted here are too harsh toward the teacher. From the Tribune article, it is unclear whether it was the teacher or someone else--say, the principal--who made the final decision to invoke the aid of the police. As far as the teacher's decision to report the writing assignment, it was probably best for her to err on the side of caution.

Perhaps it may be said that the teacher was overbroad in her instructions to the students. But are we to expect every assignment to have to come with the caveat "unless you write something that appears disturbing"?

Please understand that I do not agree with charging Mr. Lee with a criminal offense. Nor am I suggesting that it's always, or even usually, easy to know what should be counted as "disturbing" and what should be considered as merely the random thoughts of an 18 year old.
4.30.2007 5:14pm
Lou Wainwright (mail):
In high school my best friend, as a senior, wrote a short story for our creative writing class in which a thinly veiled analog of a girl in our grade was poisoned with Ipecac, locked in her car, and left to die of dehydration from vomiting and heatstroke. She'd (real and fictional) ratted out a party to her parents.

He read it out loud as per the teacher's instruction and was given a poor grade for writing something that was a naked and uninteresting revenge fantasy. I guarantee the teacher never thought to go to the principal or the police. In part because my fried was an A student, great guy, and had never shown any tendency to violence. He was just really pissed off when the assignment came down. I can't believe this kid was arrested.
4.30.2007 5:26pm
Joe Bingham (mail):
From the Tribune article, it is unclear whether it was the teacher or someone else--say, the principal--who made the final decision to invoke the aid of the police. As far as the teacher's decision to report the writing assignment, it was probably best for her to err on the side of caution. Perhaps it may be said that the teacher was overbroad in her instructions to the students.

In no sense were the teacher's instructions broad. They could not have been more specific. In fact, she even said something along the lines of "if your writing is neat, you're probably putting too much thought into it."

The article clearly makes the teacher a part of the decision to turn the essay over to police. A teacher who would try to have a student criminally punished for following her specific and remarkably stupid instructions is simply an awful person. Discussing it with school officials, or the student's parents, and seeking to get treatment for the student is fine. Trying to punish him for obeying you is not.
4.30.2007 5:27pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
So how is a piece of writing, "conduct?" Sounds like written expression to me protected by the first amendment. Now if he directed his writing with threats towards a specific person, that's another matter. Does this mean someone who publishes a copy of the Marquis De Sade's novel Justine (aka The Misfortunes of Virtue) is subject to arrest and prosecution? What's next in America, lettres de cachet?

If by some gamma quadrant thinking, this is a crime can't Lee claim some kind entrapment? After all he was induced by an authority to write this essay. Or does entrapment only apply to the police. We need an expert here.
4.30.2007 5:31pm
corneille1640 (mail):
Joe Bingham:

Perhaps the teacher's instructions were "remarkably stupid," but that by itself, in my view, does not make her "simply an awful person." (Again, it is unclear to me that the teacher sought to have Mr. Lee arrested.)
4.30.2007 5:39pm
Philistine (mail):
According to this Story:


The English teacher read the essay and reported it to a supervisor and the principal. A round-table discussion with district officials conveyed, with lively debate, and they decided to report it to the police.



I don't blame the teacher for reporting the essay. I don't necessarily blame the administration for reporting it to the police (what if they had other information that the kid might be a danger?).

I blame the police for making an arrest--and any prosecutor who either signed off on the arrest decision, or is supporting it.
4.30.2007 5:41pm
Joe Bingham (mail):
(Again, it is unclear to me that the teacher sought to have Mr. Lee arrested.)\

If I were the teacher, and had opposed the decision to report the paper to the police, I would sue the C-T for libel.
4.30.2007 5:51pm
PDXLawyer (mail):
Interesting that no one has commented on the poor judgment of the police/sheriff in pursuing this matter. Seems to me like a bunch of careerists - teacher, principal, policeman - all trying to avoid any risk of being held responsible for something.
4.30.2007 5:54pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
Virginia Tech's Distinguished Professor of English and Black Studies, Nikki Giovanni, who gave the closing remarks at their convocation memorializing the 32 slaughtered students has herself written plays and poems that could "alarm or disturb another and to provoke a breach of the peace." Here is an excerpt from one of her poems.

"Nigger
Can you kill
Can you kill
Can a nigger kill
Can a nigger kill a honkie
Can a nigger kill the Man
Can you kill nigger
Huh? nigger can you
kill
Do you know how to draw blood
Can you poison
Can you stab-a-Jew

Now to be fair she wrote this poem as a rage-filled young person. As far as I know she didn't get arrested for disorderly conduct. Moreover this poem is but one of many works that could qualify as something that could "alarm or disturb another and to provoke a breach of the peace." You can read the entire poem here.
4.30.2007 6:11pm
Joe Bingham (mail):
You're right. I'm disturbed.
4.30.2007 6:26pm
whit:
sue sue sue sue sue!

this is absolutely ridiculous example of thought control.

based on my past experience, i would find it highly likely that a prosecutor would have recommended/signed off on this type of arrest.

but i cannot see anyway anyhow, how it's a legal one.

it's just the current environment in the US is that the 1st amendment takes a backseat to hysterical thought police.

if that teacher had turned the essay over to me, i would have said 'so what?' and if she suggested the kid be arrested, i would have suggested she review the constitution and get back to me

i'm more than disturbed. i'm disgusted
4.30.2007 7:25pm
c. l. ball (mail):
It appears no one even attempted to speak with the student before having him arrested.

What madness.
4.30.2007 7:48pm
ReaderY:
Dark emotions are normal behavior for young people. Stifling legitimate outlets for expressing it represents and unhealthy social reaction and is likely to increase rather than decrease violence.

Given the context, no reasonable person could have thought such an essay a threat. I can see motive for an arrest other than a desire to punish people for the content of their minds. Such a desire is not a healthy one for a police officer to have.
4.30.2007 8:06pm
ReaderY:
Dark emotions are normal behavior for young people. Stifling legitimate outlets for expressing them represents an unhealthy social reaction and is likely to increase rather than decrease violence.

Given the context, no reasonable person could have thought such an essay a threat. I can see no motive for an arrest other than a desire to punish people for the content of their minds. Such a desire is not a healthy one for a police officer to have. Adults should model self-control and appropriate handling of disturbing feelings; adults who model failure to do this decrease rather than increase the peace.
4.30.2007 8:12pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
One of the tricks polygraph (lie detector) testers use is to ask the subject if he ever thought of killing anyone at some time in his life. A lot of people will say "no," but this applies to about 1% of the population. Thus the operator has a good calibration question. Virtually everyone has angry and anti-social thoughts, and even perverted thoughts. If this student otherwise showed normal behavior then his essay means nothing. On the other hand, Cho exhibited anti-social and dangerous behavior in many ways. The school people are idiots and should be punished for having called the police. The police too should be punished. This all assumes there isn't more information that would put the whole thing in different light.
4.30.2007 8:29pm
waitingforgodot (mail) (www):
I am glad to see this up here. I was going to pass it along to Prof. Volokh myself, but finals took priority.

I don't think the student's judgment should be criticized. He was explicitly told not to censor his thoughts. Actually I think it's a fascinating assignment, not only from a creative writing perspective but from a psychological perspective.

But I come down hard on the teacher for giving an assignment of that nature and not expecting disturbing content. All that says to me is that many others in the class self-censored.

It doesn't take a genius to know that normal healthy people, especially the high-IQ creative types, have some pretty weird shit floating through the ether of consciousness from time to time. Some of it can be pretty depraved.

But having depraved thoughts does not make one especially likely to be a killer or the nightmare of all things small and furry. Being unable to tell reality from fantasy--- that's the thing you have to look out for. And concrete behaviors that are disturbing. Remember Cho's in-room "sessions" with an imaginary girlfriend? Hello, red flag!

There's no rule that says all teachers must be particularly psychologically insightful (although with a creative writing teacher, you would hope so). I think that teacher is a bit of an idiot for reporting it, but I can also understand the caution. I think the principal is also an idiot for reporting it, and I'd have to doubly fault the guidance counselor, who has not been mentioned, but should have put a stop to the whole charade.

I don't fault the police (well, maybe a little) for being cautious and thinking up a quick catch-all charge. But I absolutely fault the prosecutors for pursuing this trumped-up nonsense. Hear that distant screaming sound? It's the First Amendment being dragged off for a beating.

I'd go into more detail about the tortures being inflicted upon the First Amendment, but I don't feel like being arrested. ;)
4.30.2007 9:59pm
Guest12345:
Before castigating the teacher, I'd like to know how many students were in the class and how many wrote similarly themed papers about people in the peer group (the instructor, other students, etc.) The claims that the assignment led directly to this particular end result may be entirely incorrect. If in a class of thirty, twenty-nine students saw the assignment as direction to remove their "gosh, that's a stupid idea" filters and one student perceived it to mean write an aggressive and violent rant, perhaps closer scrutiny might be wise.

As far as arresting the kid? Probably not. But in the context of this particular student at this particular school, maybe it was the right thing to do. We don't know.
4.30.2007 10:01pm
Guest12345:
But I come down hard on the teacher for giving an assignment of that nature and not expecting disturbing content. All that says to me is that many others in the class self-censored.

It doesn't take a genius to know that normal healthy people, especially the high-IQ creative types, have some pretty weird shit floating through the ether of consciousness from time to time. Some of it can be pretty depraved.


I think your assertion that everyone else must have self-censored is off the mark for two reasons.

First, it would be impossible to write down everything that crossed your mind while working on the paper. Literally there had to be a decision to select a particular theme and then write about that theme. Anything else would fail entirely to convey any coherent ideas.

Secondly, a lot of people's thinking -- even self absorbed, angst ridden teenagers -- doesn't revolve around violence and murder. One could honestly write an uncensored paper about wild, kinky and totally consensual sex. Or about a particular treasured item one wants. Or a particular vacation. Uncensored means a lot of things, not necessarily vulgarity and murder.
4.30.2007 10:10pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
It's possible the kid was pushing the envelope on purpose, not exposing his innermost self. Just for grins. If this were a sixth-grader, it would probably have been fart jokes.
Exposing one's innermost self to one in the helping professions is remarkbly stupid, anyway. This kid learned it earlier than most.
And his classmates learned, as did Cody Webb, that public school administrators are idiots. Never trust an educrat.
4.30.2007 10:20pm
waitingforgodot (mail) (www):
Guest12345:

I disagree with your second paragraph. Look at the full text of the essay, and the explanation following. (Sorry, my link is not working, but you can find it through yahoo! news)

It was disjointed. It was not "themed", there were multiple ideas mixed in, along with random references to video games and lyrics that popped into his head.

I'm not saying every student self censored. But I'm saying I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that more than a few did.

Personally, if I were ever given an assignment like that, I know I'd self censor, or else I'd have to go up and personaly forewarn the teacher that things were likely to get pretty inappropriate for your average classroom. For instance, just now, the first thing to pop into my head was "sheep in a tartan skirt and crotchless stockings." If I were Stephen King, it probably would have been something about rotting corpses, but apparently I have the psychological makeup of a lonely farmer in the Scottish highlands.

oh damn and this is attached to my myspace. Now I'll never be a member of the bar....

Seriously, I wonder whether the teacher, principal, arresting officer, prosecutor et al could stand up to such a Big-Brother-like examination of their psyches.

-WFG
4.30.2007 10:33pm
Visitor Again:
The kid was terribly naive. At his age, he should have known, for years already, that adults in positions of authority are not to be trusted, that they abuse their powers, that they do not like anything which even vaguely threatens their view of the world. He still has to learn that you tell authorities what they want to hear--unless you enjoy being hassled and persecuted.
5.1.2007 12:04am
Visitor Again:
Having scanned the Wisconsin court's opinion, I was surprised that while the majority held that the first amendment protected the student's speech and that prosecution under the penal statute was therefore improper, the school could validly discipline him for that same speech. If the speech is protected, it seems to me that should bar discipline as well as prosecution under a penal statute. Either it's protected speech or it's not.
5.1.2007 12:39am
wfg:
No, visitor, just because the 1st am guarantees freedom from criminal prosecution for most speech does not mean that schools do not some have control over student expression. That distinction has been upheld in a number of decisions relating to school newspapers, t-shirts and assorted similar issues.

However it is absurd to discipline a student for doing precisely what was asked of him in an assignment. Really it's the teacher who should be disciplined, and not for giving the assignment, but for having given it without thinking through what the likely consequences were.

An assignment like this, if given, should be given in full anonymity, and probably not at the high school level, because true stream-of-consciousness is likely to produce profanity, violence, explicit sexuality, personal attacks and maybe even a little bit of racist content (not to say that there wouldn't be worthwhile content as well) There's a lot of stuff that bubbles up from the subsonscious ether which our minds censor for good reason! And that would emerge from various students if they took the assignment at its word.
5.1.2007 2:09am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
wfg. Good point about various items bubbling up.
But we only presume this kid was enabling his inner bubbles.

He might have looked at this as a writing assignment to be as nuts as you can and done it quite consciously, choosing to be shocking. Professional writers could knock something like that off in an hour and not be bubbling anything up from anywhere.

How many false positives will the VT shooting bubble up?
5.1.2007 9:29am
Visitor Again:
I know there have been several from the Supreme Court cases following Tinker with one now pending, but I'm not aware that any of them held that protected speech may be subjected to discipline. The cases following Tinker gave the school administrators latitude, but they did so in the context of holding the speech at issue was not protected. It seems to me it is a contradiction in terms to say that disciplinary penalties may be attached to speech even though that speech is protected by the first amendment. If penalties may validly be attached to it, the speech is not protected.
5.1.2007 1:36pm