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Faces Who are these faces around me? Where did they come from? They would probably become the next doctors or loirs [sic] or something. All really intelligent and ahead in their game. I wish I had a choice on what I want to be like they do. All so happy and vagrant. Each origonal [sic] in their own way. They make me want to puke. For I am Dark, Destructive, & Dangerous. I slap on my face of happiness but inside I am evil!! For I can be the next kid to bring guns to kill students at school. So Parents watch your children cuz I’m BACK!! by: Julius AKA Angel
The California Supreme Court seemed reluctant Thursday to uphold the conviction of a San Jose student who was tossed in juvenile hall after he wrote a poem about shooting students at his school (reprinted above). The case, which has attracted attention from writers around the world, revolves around a 15-year-old Santa Teresa High School student who spent 90 days in juvenile hall after he showed several students poems that he described as “dark poetry.” A Santa Clara County juvenile court judge ruled that one of George T.’s poems constituted a criminal threat, and a split 6th District Court of Appeal upheld the ruling. On Thursday, the court weighed whether the poetry could be considered a criminal threat and if the First Amendment issue meant the justices should give the lower court’s ruling a more critical eye. During oral arguments, the justices signaled they weren’t on the same page as the lower courts. Chief Justice Ronald George and Justices Carlos Moreno, Joyce Kennard, and Kathryn Werdegar hammered the AG’s office about the student’s First Amendment rights. The menacing language in the poem “Faces” was open to interpretation, Kennard said. “It doesn’t say, ‘I will be the next kid who brings guns to the school’; it says, ‘I can be,’” Kennard said. “‘Can’ has multiple connotations,” argued Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Laurence. There are other things that indicate the poem was a threat, Laurence said. The verses, which allude to school shootings, were written in the wake of the Columbine massacre and given to students just 11 days after the 2001 shooting at a Santee school, he said. In court papers in In Re George T., S111780, Laurence argued that George T. was a troubled youth who had been kicked out of two other schools and had access to guns. The lower court also weighed testimony by a girl who claimed that George T. threatened her, but later recanted her testimony, Laurence wrote. Several justices seemed skeptical Thursday, since the “threat” had been contained in a creative work. “If those words weren’t contained in a poem, wouldn’t you have it easier?” George asked. Werdegar noted that the boy asked one girl about a poetry club before he handed her the poem. “That colors the situation,” she said. The justices should respect the findings of the lower court, Laurence replied. The trial judge tacked 10 days to George T.’s sentence because he lied about parts of the case, the deputy AG said. Two of the justices, Marvin Baxter and Janice Rogers Brown, tried to rescue Laurence. “Isn’t this court bound by the credibility findings of the lower court?” Baxter asked. And when the boy’s attorney addressed the court, Brown wisecracked: Would a bank robber who passed a note saying, “Roses are red, violets are blue, give me the money or I’ll shoot you,” also be protected? The robber’s note would properly be considered a threat, said Michael Kresser, who laughed along with the rest of the courtroom. But Kresser, who is executive director of the 6th District Appellate Project, argued that the poem is too vague to meet the legal criteria for a threat. While schools have the power to discipline students for disturbing writing, criminal charges are extreme, he said. The chief justice and other justices lobbed sympathetic questions Kresser’s way. When Baxter queried if a ruling in the boy’s favor would tie the school district’s hands, Moreno jumped in. “Aren’t we talking about two issues here,” Moreno asked, referring to school discipline and criminal charges. Kresser agreed. “We are not talking about what actions the school may have taken … we are talking about taking the liberty of this man for a period of time.” “What would have made this poem a threat — or are all poems threats?” the chief justice asked Kresser. Some poems could be threats if they had a specific target and clear intent, Kresser agreed. “Just because something is in verse doesn’t immunize it,” he said. The poetry case has struck a chord with the literary elite. A dozen writers, including Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, signed on to an amicus brief penned by the First Amendment Project and the American Civil Liberties Union. The day before oral arguments, some of those authors read violent passages from famous literature at an event in support of the boy’s case. The dark poetry case continues to haunt George T., who is now 18, Kresser said outside of court. The young man wants to join the military, but it would be difficult to enlist if the conviction stayed on his record, the lawyer said. Meanwhile, California schools continue to struggle with how to respond to perceived threats by students. On Wednesday, Walnut Creek police arrested a 14-year-old boy for posting an online cartoon with the caption, “[My teacher] called me a good-looking peacock. Maybe I should kill him and urinate on his remains.”

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