A New York Appellate Court has ruled that a student can be suspended for making threats on school grounds without a showing that the student had the intention to carry out the expressed conduct. See R. v. Steiner, No. 514071 (N.Y. App. Div. Oct. 25, 2012). In reaching this conclusion, the court applied the substantial disruption standard set forth in Tinker v. Des Moines Ind. Comm. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969). This standard enables a school district to discipline students for their speech when school officials reasonably forecast the student expression would lead to a substantial disruption of the school environment or an invasion of the rights of others.
In R. v. Steiner, the student, a ninth-grader, was suspended after he told fellow students and a teacher that he was “going to just blow up this place” and warned them “don’t come to school on Friday.” The court found that although none of the witnesses to the threats testified that they believed the student’s words “to mean that he intended to engage in the expressed violent conduct, it was nevertheless reasonably foreseeable that such a threat to blow up the school would create a substantial disruption within the school.”
In its ruling, the court rejected the student’s argument that because there was no evidence or a determination that he actually intended to carry out the threat, the suspension violated his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The court applied the Tinker standard and found that because it was uncontested that the student made the statements on school grounds while school was is session, school official could reasonably expect the speech to cause substantial disruption. The school was not required to present witnesses to testify that they believed the student actually intended to carry out the expressed conduct in order for a substantial disruption to occur. The court ruled that an analysis of whether the student was making a joke or stating his intentions is not integral to a substantial disruption analysis.