In considering whether comments are protected under the First Amendment, a court may employ an objective reasonable person standard, defining a true threat as a statement that a speaker would reasonably foresee that a listener would reasonably interpret as a serious expression of a purpose to inflict harm, i.e., to intimidate or inflict bodily harm, as distinguished from hyperbole, jest, innocuous talk, expressions of political views, or other similarly protected speech. In engaging in this analysis, it is the totality of the circumstances that is to be considered. It is not necessary that the speaker have the ability to carry out the threat. Rather, consideration is to be given to the full context of the statement, including all relevant factors as to how the statement could be interpreted. Factors to be considered include how the recipient and other listeners react to the alleged threat; whether the threat is conditional; whether it is communicated directly to its victim; whether the makers of the threat have made similar statements to the victim on other occasions; and whether the victim has reason to believe that the maker of the threat has a propensity to engage in violence.
The student, appellant J.S., posted a website from his home that contained derogatory comments about his school principal, and derogatory comments and drawings about his math teacher. The website solicited funds to hire a hitman to kill the math teacher. J.S. revealed the existence of the website to others, who accessed the website from school. Eventually, the school faculty learned of the website and accessed it. The teacher became upset and had to take a medical leave of absence. Other students became anxious over the website. The principal considered the website to have badly disrupted the school's morale, and suspended J.S. Consequently, the school conducting expulsion hearings and expelled J.S. J.S., through his parents appealed to the Pennsylvania court of common pleas, claiming that by expelling him, the school district violated the student's First Amendment rights. The trial court affirmed the decision to expel the student. J.S. appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, and a panel of the Commonwealth Court affirmed the decision. Thereafter, J.S. appealed.
Where a high school student created and posted a website containing offensive and threatening statements directed toward school faculty, did the public school district's disciplinary actions violate the student's First Amendment right to free speech?
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the judgment. The Court held that the website created disorder and significantly and adversely impacted the delivery of instruction. The Court ruled that it was specifically aimed at the school district and seemed designed to create upheaval. Furthermore, the Court averred that the school district demonstrated that the website created an actual and substantial interference with the work of the school. Therefore, the Court concluded that the school district's disciplinary action taken against the student did not violate his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.