ACLU of Arkansas Defends Student Expelled for Private Writing Deemed "Terroristic Threat"

Affiliate: ACLU of Arkansas
September 26, 2000 12:00 am

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ACLU of Arkansas
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LITTLE ROCK, AR–The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas today asked a federal court to reinstate a 14-year-old boy who was expelled over private writing that another boy took out of his house without his knowledge and showed to a student at their school.

In legal papers filed with the court, the ACLU said that the student’s writing expressed purely private feelings about a girl he used to date, and was never meant to be delivered to her or anyone else. Officials at Northwood Junior High School in the Pulaski County School District violated the students’ First Amendment rights for punishing him for private speech, the ACLU charged.

“No government official has the right to punish a person for expressing his or her feelings,” said ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Rita Sklar. “If the government could punish uncommunicated thought or feelings, how many of us could be jailed for the pages of our journals or the contents of unsent letters?”

“The school’s ‘zero tolerance approach is counterproductive,” she added. “When a child leaves the schoolhouse gate, it is the job of the parent, not the school, to make decisions about discipline in private matters.”

Sklar said the legal action was filed anonymously to protect the identities of the student and the other minor students involved in the case. The plaintiff, known only as John Doe, has no history of violence or discipline problems.

But after being made aware of the letter, the school found John Doe guilty of “terroristic threatening,” even though he never made a direct communication to the girl and the material was stolen from his house and given to her by a third party.

He was sentenced him to Alternative School for a semester. When his parents challenged the ruling to the school board, officials overruled the original punishment and instead expelled John Doe for an entire year from the entire district (including the Alternative School).

“It’s a pretty clear-cut case of the government trying to regulate private speech,” said Little Rock attorney Morgan “Chip” Welchm, who is handling the case for the ACLU.

Welch said that his client likes to copy rap lyrics off of albums and to compose his own songs. He composed what started as a “song” about the girl in question, known as “GK,” but it ended up more in the form of a letter. A friend of his, known in the complaint as “MD,” found the writing in John Doe’s room over the summer; he asked for a copy of the song/letter to show to GK and others, but John Doe refused. MD told other students, including GK, about the song/letter. GK asked John Doe about the material and whether she could see it; he refused.

A few weeks later, MD spent the night at John Doe’s house and, unbeknownst to John Doe, took the song/letter from the house. When school started a few days later, MD gave the song/letter to GK at school. The material contained insulting language, profanity and violent images.

GK gave it to the school resource officer, a Sheriff’s Deputy, who called in an investigator from the Sheriff’s Department. John Doe had been disturbed to find the song/letter missing, and was even more upset to find out it had been delivered to GK. After a brief investigation, the Sheriff’s Department declined to pursue charges.

Doe v. Pulaski School District brief is online at:

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