State of California v. George T.
Artist: George T.
Date of Action: February 2020
Region: North America
Confronting Bodies: George T., California Supreme Court
Description of Artwork: George T., a high school sophomore, wrote various poems and gave them to fellow classmates in his English Honors Class. These poems were interpreted to be threats to his classmates and high school, as he wrote, "I am Dark, Destructive, & Dangerous. I slap on my face of happiness but inside I am evil!! For I can be the next kid to bring guns to kill students at school. So parents watch your children cuz I’m BACK!!’
The Incident: His two classmates contacted teachers and authorities at the high school, who brought the case to the police. George T. was subsequently arrested and charged with making a criminal threat in violation of California Penal Code Section 422. At his trial, the Santa Clara County juvenile court concluded that George T.’s poem and his handing it out to other students met all five of the elements necessary to establish a criminal threat.
On appeal, the Court of Appeal upheld the juvenile court’s finding of delinquency, asserting there was sufficient evidence to conclude that the poem constituted a criminal threat. The Court also rejected his claim of First Amendment protections on the basis that the speech was not entitled to protection because it “would materially and substantially disrupt the work … of the school.”
Amici pointed out that the poem, though expressing unpleasant and angry thoughts, was entitled to the same constitutional protection as other written expression. They also noted that misconceptions about school safety have led in this case as well as others to the criminalization of minor offenses that are best handled by school officials rather than police officers and juvenile courts.
Results of Incident: The California Supreme Court reversed the lower court decision and held that George's poem did not constitute a criminal threat. The Court determined that the case did implicate the student’s First Amendment rights, and after conducting an independent review of the lower court’s finding that the student violated the criminal threat statute, concluded that the prosecution had failed to establish all of the elements necessary to prove a criminal threat. After all, George T. had not acted with "actual malice."
In particular, the Court concluded that the poem and the circumstances surrounding its dissemination were not “so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific as to convey a gravity of purpose and an immediate prospect of execution of the threat.”