Punishing Perceived Threats: Nick Emmett and the Online "Hit List"
The most recent high profile case, again in Washington State, began this February when Kentlake High School senior Nick Emmett produced a Web site one weekend with his father and a friend. Emmett, a varsity basketball co-captain with a 3.95 grade point average, posted a site entitled the "Unofficial Kentlake High Home Page," and included disclaimers informing users that the site was for entertainment purposes only and was not endorsed by the School. The site covered a range of topics, including praise for the school's teachers and administrators.
The content at issue, though, was a series of mock "obituaries" regarding several of Emmett's friends. The idea for the obituaries had come from a previous high school creative writing assignment for which students composed their own obituary. Having enjoyed the class assignment, he decided to take the morbid essays public and write additional obituaries for his schoolmates.
Awareness of the Web site and the tongue-in-cheek obituaries soon spread along the Kentlake grapevine. Fellow students as well as teachers praised the site and encouraged more obituary entries. This success led to Emmett's addition of a new feature to his page: online voting for visitors to select which classmate would "die" next and become the subject of a mock obituary.
On February 16, just three days after the site had been created, a local TV station received a tip about the Web site and featured it on the evening news. The news story characterized the site as a "hit list" of people Emmett was planning to kill, even though the site was clearly marked as a parody and contained no reference to the phrase "hit list." Fearing reprisals, Emmett immediately removed the site. The following morning, Emmett was summoned to the school principal's office. The principal expelled him for "intimidation, harassment, disruption to the educational process and violation of Kent School District copyright," though no actual classroom disruption had occurred, nor was their any evidence that students had actually felt threatened.
Like Kim and Beussink before him, Nick Emmett chose to pursue legal action. "I went to court to fight for my rights because I don't think administrators should be able to make unfair punishments," Nick Emmett explained. "I care about school and want to go to class."
On February 23, 2000, U.S. District Court Chief Judge John Coughenour issued a restraining order against the district, arguing that the school had exceeded its boundaries by punishing Emmett for content produced off school grounds. "In the present case," he wrote, "[Emmett's] speech was not at a school assembly... and was not in a school-sponsored newspaper.... It was not produced in connection with any class or school project. Although the intended audience was undoubtedly connected to Kentlake High School, the speech was entirely outside of the school's supervision or control."
The judge went on to conclude the restraining order with the following comments:
The defendant [i.e., the school district] argues, persuasively, that school administrators are in an acutely difficult position after recent school shootings
and other places. Web sites can be an early indication of a student's violent inclinations, and can spread those beliefs quickly to like-minded
or susceptible people. The defendant, however, has presented no evidence that the mock obituaries and voting on this web site were intended to threaten anyone, did actually threaten anyone, or manifested any violent tendencies whatsoever. This lack of evidence, combined with the above findings regarding the out-of-school nature of the speech, indicates that the plaintiff [Emmett] has a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of his claim.
Facing a lawsuit from Emmett, the school district eventually settled out of court with the student on March 30. Under the terms of the settlement, the district would rescind its disciplinary measures against Emmett and pay his legal fees.
"The court recognized that school officials do not have authority to punish students for exercising their freedom of speech outside of school. School administrators need to learn that they can't discipline students who create satires on the Internet," said Aaron Caplan, the Washington ACLU staff attorney who represented Emmett.