Internet Threats of Violence Are Grounds for Student Discipline – Even if Off Campus

A Nevada high school student sent “instant messages” to his friends from his home computer that threatened mass shootings at his school.  School officials suspended the student based on the threat to school safety and the potential disruption of school activity.  Falling in line with other Federal circuits, the Ninth Circuit upheld the officials’ decision to discipline. (Wynar v. Douglas County School District (--- F.3d ----, C.A.9 (Nev.), August 29, 2013).

What This Means To You

The Federal courts have been struggling for years to balance free speech rights with school order and safety in the rapidly changing context of electronic communication.  In this decision, the Ninth Circuit has joined other Federal courts in saying that off campus speech is still subject to school district control when it poses a significant on campus threat of violence, disruption, or interference with the rights of other students.  The decision makes these key points:

  • Specific threats of serious violence should always be taken seriously, regardless of the physical point of origin.
  • The courts will generally not second guess school officials in deciding the appropriate degree of discipline for a given act of misconduct.
  • Even if a school does not follow its own discipline procedure to the letter, students only have the basic right to notice of the reason for discipline and a chance to respond.
  • A general school policy regarding violence and disruption was sufficient; the policy did not need to specifically address off campus internet threats.

The bottom line is that the courts are deferring to the professional judgment of educators in weighing the seriousness of threatening internet messages.  As long as there is minimal due process, the courts recognize that, given recent history, threats must be taken very seriously. Given the ease with which threats can be transmitted on the internet, students must refrain from making threats even from home.