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Student Expelled for Threatening School Violence

In 2019, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled on a First Amendment case regarding free speech, which has significant implications for local and regional boards of education as well as higher education institutions. In Haughwout v. Tordenti, 332 Conn. 559 (2019), the Court reviewed an appeal involving a student from Southern Connecticut State University who had been expelled for violating several provisions of the university’s code of conduct, specifically related to threatening behavior, harassment, and disorderly conduct. The university expelled the student following investigations that revealed he had repeatedly made comments and gestures that some of his peers interpreted as threats of violence at the school.

Specifically, it was reported that the student frequently made gestures simulating shooting and noises mimicking gunfire, speculated aloud about the amount of ammunition necessary to harm others at the university, mentioned his possession of ammunition, displayed pictures of his firearms to fellow students, bragged about bringing a firearm to campus, made multiple references to “shooting up the school,” suggested someone should do so, identified a specific student as a “target,” and mentioned recent shootings at other universities.

The student contested his expulsion on several grounds, occasionally arguing that his statements and gestures were ambiguous or made in jest, and suggesting that his peers targeted him for complaints due to his “personality.” Additionally, he asserted that his statements pertained to matters of public concern, particularly gun ownership rights, and therefore constituted protected free speech under the First Amendment.

What is a true threat?

The Court, however, disagreed with the student and unanimously upheld the lower court’s ruling that his statements and gestures constituted “true threats,” which are not protected by the First Amendment. The Court emphasized that while free speech is typically subject to strict scrutiny when restricted by government action, certain types of speech, including true threats, do not merit constitutional protection.
True threats are defined as statements where the speaker intends to convey a serious expression of intent to commit unlawful violence against a specific individual or group. Importantly, the speaker does not need to intend to carry out the threat for it to be considered a true threat. This legal principle aims to protect individuals from fear of violence and the disruptions such fear can cause, as well as the potential for actual violence. The Court underscored that true threats do not involve important public policy discussions and therefore lack communicative value, ultimately being outweighed by societal interests in maintaining order and morality.

True Threats vs. Protected Expression

Crucially, although speech categorized as true threats is not protected by the First Amendment, the Court ruled that the government must still provide evidence showing that a “reasonable listener familiar with the entire factual context of the defendant’s statements” would likely interpret them as a genuine threat of violence rather than protected expression, regardless of how offensive or objectionable they may be.
Put another way, the criterion for determining if speech constitutes a true threat is whether a “reasonable person would anticipate that the statement would be understood by those to whom it is communicated as a sincere expression of intent to harm or assault.” The Court stressed the importance of evaluating an individual’s statements based on the “totality of the circumstances,” which includes surrounding events and the reactions of listeners. Additionally, the Court noted that a listener’s apprehension or fear does not have to be immediate or overt, and even “indirect statements” can qualify as true threats.