Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Slippery Slope for Scary Story

By Shawn Healy
Former Roswell (GA) High School student Rachel Boim was suspended and expelled in October 2003 for writing in a notebook that alluded to shooting her male math teacher during sixth period. The notebook was shared with a fellow student during art class and confiscated by the teacher. Boim served her suspension, but the expulsion was overturned by the Fulton County Board of Education. Boim's father filed suit on her behalf, contesting the constitutionality of the punishment on 1st Amendment grounds and later asking that the reprimand be expunged from her academic record.

Last week, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on behalf of the school district on both counts. They cited a slew of Supreme Court cases related to student speech, including Tinker, Fraser, and Hazelwood, along with the TLO v. New Jersey case implicating student privacy. They went further to suggest that in their district, "school officials 'must have the flexibility to control the tenors and contours of student speech within school walls or on school property, even if such speech does not result in a reasonable fear of immediate disruption.'"

In concluding that Rachel's writing clearly constitutes expression, the material and substantial disruption standard of Tinker applies, as it threatened the "maintenance of order and decorum" within Roswell High School. The court went further, however, by applying the recent Morse v. Frederick (AKA, Bong Hits 4 Jesus) opinion, equating the school's right to limit drug-related speech to the threat of school violence.

In the end, according to the opinion, "there First Amendment right allowing a student to knowingly make comments, whether oral or written, that reasonably could be perceived as a threat of school violence, whether general or specific, while on school property during the day."

The outcome of the case is by no means shocking and is arguably a reasonable ruling. A concurring opinion writing by the Honorable Susan Black limited the decision to solely the Tinker material and substantial disruption standard, suggesting that the court need go no further in applying the slew of student speech cases that have since eroded the impact of the landmark ruling. I tend to agree with Judge Black, and fear the rather narrow "Bong Hits" ruling will be applied in a broader fashion with this opinion cited as precedent.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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