Teen’s remark ruled a threat
Luzerne boy said he ‘wanted to beat the record of 19’ after Parkland, Fla., massacre
A 15-year-old boy who told classmates he “wanted to beat the record of 19” days after the nation’s deadliest high school shooting last year made a terroristic threat, a Pennsylvania appeals court has ruled.
The statement, made after the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, rattled the Luzerne County vocational high school where the boy was a student, classmates testified at his delinquency hearing in juvenile court.
The boy, identified in court filings only by the initials J.J.M., challenged the juvenile court’s finding that he was delinquent, arguing that Pennsylvania’s terroristic threats law violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.
A three-judge panel of the Superior Court ruled this week that J.M.M.’s statement was
made with conscious disregard of the risk that it would cause terror among those who heard it. For that reason it was not protected by the First Amendment.
The decision deals with unsettled questions about when a speaker’s state of mind makes threatening statements illegal. Although the U.S. Supreme Court and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have not decided whether recklessness is enough to make threatening statements criminal, the circumstances of J.M.M.’s remark made it illegal, the Superior Court ruled.
“We hold that in the context of the special circumstances attendant with threats made in a school setting, a threat made with the mental state of recklessness … constitutes a true threat falling outside the scope of the protections of the First Amendment,” Judge Mary Jane Bowes wrote for the panel.
J.M.M. had cultivated an image among his classmates as being preoccupied with thoughts of death, according to the opinion. He must have known the effect his words would have on his fellow students in the wake of the Florida shooting, Bowes wrote.
“Yet he chose to utter them anyway, in school, in the hallway between classes, for anyone and everyone around him to hear,” Bowes wrote. “We do not believe the First Amendment is or ever was intended to give [J.M.M.] the right to do so.”
The opinion notes that although J.M.M. stated he wanted to break the “record of 19,” the gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas actually killed 17 people. A witness in the Luzerne County case testified she was uncertain of the number, but nonetheless interpreted her classmate’s statement as a reference to the Parkland shootings.
A Luzerne County public defender who represented J.M.M. and the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case did not respond to phone messages.
While the First Amendment generally provides a right to free speech, it does not protect threats of violence because of the need to protect people from the fear of violence, the disruption that fear causes and the chance that violence will actually occur, the Superior Court noted. Courts have struggled to define what constitutes a true threat not protected by the Constitution.
The Superior Court panel found support for reckless speech as a true threat in a dissent to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of a Lower Saucon Township man who made Facebook threats against Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom, his estranged wife, law enforcement and an unspecified kindergarten class.
The majority ruled in 2015 that jurors were improperly instructed to determine whether a reasonable person reading the posts would see them as threatening and that prosecutors were required to prove the writer’s state of mind. The man’s conviction was upheld, however, because the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the mistake had no impact on the outcome.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote in a separate opinion, “Someone who acts recklessly with respect to conveying a threat necessarily grasps that he is not engaged in innocent conduct. He is not merely careless. He is aware that others could regard his statements as a threat, but delivers them anyway.”