Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Eighth Circuit Affirms Lower Court Dismissal of "True Threat" Student Creative Writing Case

The Eighth Circuit has affirmed a lower court dismissal of a case brought against school officials and a Minnesota county by high school student David Riehm and his mother Colleen. The student had turned in several creative writing assignments which caused his teacher concern, and the third eventually resulted in a court's order that the student be psychiatrically examined. He and his mother sued, "seeking damages on the grounds that David’s detention violated his First Amendment right to free speech and Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures and Colleen’s Fourteenth Amendment right to familial integrity, and that the county’s failure to pay David’s medical bills violated Colleen’s Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process right, as well as Minnesota state law."

Said the appellate court, "As a preliminary matter, we find that the Riehms have not presented sufficient evidence regarding any First or Fourth Amendment violations by Cook County or by Diercks’s supervisor, Ann DeBevec. The county cannot be held vicariously liable for its agents’ actions under § 1983....While David lacked the history of violent tendencies we found relevant to the true threat analysis in Pulaski, the other factors considered in our analysis establish that David’s third essay qualifies as a true threat. While the author of the threat in Pulaski did not give his letter to the subject of the threat, David provided his essays directly to Mershon, and he submitted them on the school’s campus....His third essay went significantly farther and expressed, in graphic terms, a plan to kill her and himself. We conclude that as in Pulaski, David’s third essay constitutes a true threat and is not protected under the First Amendment."

Read the entire decision here. The case is Riehm v. Engelking, decided August 15, 2008.

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