The Freedom of Speech as a Dull, Blunt Object

A straight-A high school student was arrested for turning in a disturbing creative writing assignment, which included visions of mass killings with a pistol and necrophilia.

School: Danger! Virginia Tech! Alternative learning center, criminal charges, brou hah hah!
Student: Just being creative! Lookit the assignment! (Check out his hometown paper article on the subject and his comments on it.)

They’re both right, and the issue lies with the technical vs. temporally cultural definition of “free speech.” (I’m gonna get in trouble with this one: I’ve got a bro-in-law who’s a constitutional law professor).

I’d argue that if this student had written this in 1999, before Columbine1 and before VT, it would have come off as weird, sick, and perhaps resulted (if the teacher really cared) in a referral to the school shrink.

Now, after seeing what high capacity magazines and sick twisted minds can do, that same piece is a giant red flag for possibly aberrant behavior. And this kid should “suffer” the consequences of stupidity, the same as a person who yells “fire” in a crowded movie theater.

No, there’s no implied threat from the student. But there doesn’t need to be one for someone to see the writing as a warning sign that a person is capable of homicidal fury. After all, when a child is found to engage in animal cruelty, especially serial animal killings, it’s a sign this person may grow up to be a serial killer. It’s a known, established track. And if the writer happens to be a high school or college student, caveat emptor: find something equally creative but less disturbing to write about.

In each generation we learn more about the ‘tells‘ that indicate what a person might do. Twenty years ago was the animal thing. After Columbine, we learned that a young person’s writings had weight in terms of their future actions. That Virginia Tech outstripped Columbine in sheer numbers of martyred students was only due to some mistakes on the part of the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre2.

At this point, we can’t take that chance with our youth. The Illinois student deserves not just reprobation, but punishment. And counseling, for in every fantasy there is the grain of truth.

Having said that, it would be great if Americans could see past their own borders to the magnitude of tragedy overseas. What I’m about to say has nothing to do with my opinion of the President’s Iraq policy. We read on a daily basis about the tragedies that befall the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been two incidents involving students in schools in the last month. The total murmur on this in the general media has been body count and then moving on. To the children maimed or traumatized by being bombed, to the parents of those children, these events will change their lives forever. Helping them overcome or heal from those wounds is every bit as important as helping the survivors of the Virginia Tech or Columbine shootings. For all the money we’re pouring into Iraq in terms of bribes, generator and food handouts, and other ‘calming actions,’ helping these kids and their families is a greater and more powerful way for us to minimize the chance that they, some day, do not turn into hatred-fueled perpetrators of massacres of their own.

  1. I’m including Pearl River and all other school shootings throughout the world when I say “Columbine”

  2. Kliebold and associate had over 40 bombs set up in lockers and in two cars, placed so they would cause maximum casualties to police and ambulance responders — but they didn’t realize the alarm clocks they’d used had plastic instead of metal minute hands, which meant the circuits (thankfully) did not connect. The bombs were found and diffused after the last bullets had been fired. More on that here.