By Hana Al-Henaid
A California appeals court ruled last week that threatening posts made by readers of a website are not protected as free speech under the First Amendment if the messages can be taken as genuine threats of harm.
The case involves a teen, identified as “D.C.” in court documents, who attended Harvard-Westlake in 2004 and 2005.
Fellow students posted derogatory comments on a website promoting his pursuit of a career in singing and acting, mocking his perceived sexual orientation and making statements that threatened him with bodily harm.
The boyâs father sued six of his sonâs classmates and their parents, accusing them of hate crimes, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress caused by their postings on his website.
The appeals court denied the motion to dismiss the lawsuit brought by one of the defendants, who contended that the postings were constitutionally-protected speech on a public issue.
In their decision, the court concluded, “The students who posted the threats sought to destroy D.C.âs life, threatened to murder him, and wanted to drive him out of Harvard-Westlake and the community in which he lived.”
The appellate courtâs decision allows the case charging the defendants with hate crimes and defamation to proceed in court, to be decided by a jury.
In her dissenting opinion, Judge Frances Rothschild said the appellate court ruling “alters the legal landscape to the severe detriment of First Amendment rights.”
Harvard-Westlakeâs policy maintains that if a student makes a serious threat using school computers or makes negative comments about another student while identifying him or herself as a Harvard-Westlake student from their home computer, the school has the right to punish the student, according to the Student Parent Handbook.
“Students do have some free speech rights protected by the First Amendment,” Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts siad. “But when developing and upholding school policies, we should look at the big picture â whatâs right for the community.
“Using threatening language is inconsistent with our Honor Code,” she said.