Will the unidentified Boalt Hall law student using the online moniker Trustafarian — who Wednesday posted a menacing message intimating a “copycat” murder-suicide at Hastings College of the Law — face criminal charges?
The nation, wrenched by reports of the Virginia Tech gunman whose shooting spree Monday at the university left 32 people dead before he killed himself, is extra sensitive to fears of further tragedies. The apparent threat made some headlines.
UC-Berkeley officials and the FBI have concluded that the posting was a hoax and that the alleged author posed no threat to others. However, a separate investigation continues at Boalt to determine whether criminal charges would be appropriate, a university spokeswoman said.
From the legal perspective, leveling that type of charge might be a tough proposition.
In the summer of 2004, the California Supreme Court ruled that violent poetry written by a San Jose high school student did not constitute a criminal threat. “While the protagonist in ‘Faces’ declares that he has the potential or capacity to kill students given his dark and hidden feelings, he does not actually threaten to do so,” The Recorder quoted Justice Carlos Moreno’s written statement at the time. “While perhaps discomforting and unsettling, in this unique context this disclosure simply does not constitute an actual threat to kill or inflict harm.”
On behalf of the high school student, First Amendment advocates expressed concern that officials were overreacting to security concerns in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Colorado in 1999, California’s Santee High School in 2001 and others by stomping on students’ creativity and individuality nationwide.
The posting from "Trustafarian" read:
Subject: Just decided not to do a murder-suicide copycat at Hastings Law
I went to bed all set for "Bloody Wednesday," but when I woke — to sun, to flowers in bloom — I just couldn't bring myself to suit up.
Maybe tomorrow; I hear rain's in the forecast."
While the posting may or may not be considered poetry, some might argue that the student is free to express his or her thoughts.
Based on the context of autoaudit, where the message appeared, one Hastings student said that he felt confident the posting could not be taken seriously. “[Autoadmit] is a magnet for everything societally demonized,” including messages about rape and mass murder, he said. “If he had emailed it directly to the school, I would’ve taken it seriously. I saw it as a teenager exercising free speech.”
What students did agree on Thursday, when classes — and finals — at Hastings had resumed, was that the posting did not make them laugh. “It was not very funny,” said third-year Hastings student Julia Riechert. “If that’s their idea of a joke, I don’t think they should be practicing law.”
The threat was taken seriously by Dean Nell Newton and campus officials. Newton cancelled afternoon classes on Wednesday and campus reopened Thursday under heightened security. Police officers checked photo ID at the top of the stairs leading to the entrance at 200 McAllister. “It’s all over,” Newton said Thursday. “The police have investigated, everybody is pretty confident that it was a joke, a pretty sick joke.”
Thursday afternoon, Boalt Hall's Dean Christopher Edley sent a letter of apology to Dean Newton. Extending regret and sympathy, Edley wrote: “Coming on the heels of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, the posting was in my judgment at the very best an astounding instance of immaturity, terrible judgment, and reckless disregard for the welfare of others.”
— Petra Pasternak