Court upholds MySpace threats expulsion
August 30, 2013
Threats by a Douglas High School student to massacre his classmates weren’t protected speech, a federal appeals court ruled on Thursday.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this week affirmed the Douglas County School Board’s decision to expel sophomore Landon Wynar for making violent threats against students and threatening violence at school.
Wynar was 16 when he was arrested on Feb. 7, 2008, after fellow students reported the comments made in instant messages. He was jailed for 31 days, and suspended for 10 days until an expulsion hearing resulted in his being removed from school.
The lawsuit against the school district was filed in October 2009 in federal court. Attorney Jeffrey Blanck claimed the school district violated Landon’s First Amendment rights, and didn’t have the right to suspend him for something that was done off school property.
According to the opinion written by Judge Margaret McKeown, Wynar “engaged in a string of increasingly violent and threatening instant messages sent from his home to his friends, bragging about his weapons, threatening to shoot specific classmates, intimidating that he would ‘take out’ other people at a school shooting on a specific date and invoking the image of the Virginia Tech massacre.”
The MySpace messages included threats against two or three specific students and disturbed friends who reported them to school officials. They included references such as “that stupid kid from vtech, he didn’t do s— and got a record. I bet I could get 50+ people and not one bullet would be wasted.”
In his interview with two deputies, the opinion says, Wynar admitted sending messages but said they were a joke.
The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the school district, and the 9th Circuit panel agreed.
“The nature of the threats here was alarming and explosive,” the opinion states.
“The messages presented a real risk of significant disruption to school activities and interfered with the rights of other students. Under the circumstances, the school district did not violate Landon’s rights to freedom of expression or due process.”
The court ruled that in such a circumstance, the district could take disciplinary action against off-campus speech and was responsible to do so.
“Landon specified a date for the attack and described how he would kill two specific named classmates,” the justices wrote, adding, “Douglas County did not need to wait for an actual disruption to materialize before taking action.”
The school district, according to the opinion, followed the necessary rules before suspending Landon for 10 days, then expelling him for 90 days — the rest of the semester.