Student Found Guilty Of 'Disturbing The Peace' For Sending Nasty Political Email To Professor

from the wow dept

As we all know, online debates can spiral out of control pretty quickly — with name calling and people quickly jumping to extremes. This is especially true in the political arena, where various positions are stereotyped and extreme passions come out quickly. I tend to find such discussions tiresome. However, they occur all the time (occasionally here in our own comments). But could you consider such a conversation disturbing the peace? It appears that’s exactly what happened to a student in Nebraska who had a rather nasty political email exchange with a professor.

The student and the professor exchanged a series of emails over a short period of time. The two were at opposite ends of the political spectrum (which side was which, honestly, doesn’t and shouldn’t matter), and the student used some nasty language and accused the professor of being a traitor among other things. To be honest, if you’ve spent any time in online political discussions, this really isn’t particularly out of the ordinary — and (somewhat amazingly) after a back-and-forth exchange where the professor asked the student to stop emailing him and noting how insulted he was by the emails, the student did send a long apologetic email, telling the professor he was sorry that he got so riled up, and he really liked the professor and just wanted to debate someone intelligent who viewed the world from a very different perspective.

A few months went by, and then the professor received two anonymous emails from a new Yahoo email address that used the professor’s name as part of the address (the username was “averylovesalqueda”), again ranting politically against the professor. The professor found the emails threatening and turned them over to the police. The police eventually tracked the emails down to the same student who was then charged with disturbing the peace. Yes. Disturbing the peace. For sending a nasty email.

First Amendment scholars look out. Who knew that sending a private ranting email could disturb the peace?

Amazingly, a lower court and now the appeals court agreed and the student has been convicted of disturbing the peace for sending those emails. The court even claims that the email address itself is libelous which seems quite difficult to square with reality. No one would look at that email address and assume that it was actually from the professor in question, and there’s no indication that anyone outside of the professor himself ever saw the email address in question. O’Toole, in his post, puts the blame not on the judges, but on the student, who chose to defend himself, and appears to have done a pretty poor job of it, now leaving this ruling to be used as a citation in other cases. This is bad news no matter how you look at it. Even granting O’Toole’s premise that the student is at fault for defending himself (and doing such a poor job of it), it’s still bothersome that a judge wouldn’t take basic First Amendment rights into consideration here.

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Comments on “Student Found Guilty Of 'Disturbing The Peace' For Sending Nasty Political Email To Professor”

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barren waste says:

Disturbing the peace

First of all, I would like to ask Mike to stop disturbing my peace. I was sitting here all peaceful like, thinking nothing , doing nothing, when this story forced itself open, grabbed me by my scalp and forced me to read it….wait.

How can it be disturbing the peace when you can just hit delete. It isn’t in your face screaming that you CANNOT ignore. Not only that, but only those who actively seek out this kind of arguement get sucked in. I get a ton of emails everyday spouting what I consider trash….thats why my email comes equipped with “mark all” and “delete all marked” options. I could be wrong, but I bet this professors email has very similar options. Maybe we should sue him for disturbing the peace. At least we would have a physical case against him, as he brought it out from private email to the general public, where those in that particular courtroom were exposed to it. Hey, kid who got sued, counter sue…your rights have been violated, your dignity has been violated, and if you cry hard enough maybe your lawyer will be able to make a case for other…violations..

IdislikeLawyers says:

Re: Disturbing the peace

My outlook on this case is simple. Maybe you will disagree, but here it is anyway. If the Student had hired a lawyer he would have won. The reason for his loss is simple. Judges(really just lawyers that wear a dress), extremely dislike anyone, even another lawyer that represent themselves. They believe it makes a mockery of the legal system. they believe that so much that even if the self represented is in the right, they will find for the other side.

chris (profile) says:

email is serious business

this looks like a case of idiots colliding.

first off, since when do people actually care about what happens via email?

crazy email from some fool on the internet is nothing to get worked up about. same with forum comments. if someone sends you something incendiary, just forward it to a couple of friends and have a good laugh, or post it to the web where other people can have a good laugh at it, or just delete it. no good will come from caring what people say electronically.

people on the internet aren’t real. they don’t have actual feelings that count for anything. honestly, if you show an ounce of human emotion on the internet you are begging for hassle and torment.

and for the jackass that sent professor alqaeda the email, haven’t you heard of anonymous remailers?

you wouldn’t make a crank phone call from your house (that’s what burners and unsecured PBX’s are for) so why would you send an email from a location that can be traced back you?

Robb Topolski (profile) says:

I read the case record...

… and it’s quite extensive (and even entertaining).

Nebraska also has a 1989 case that extends “Disturbing the Peace” to include fighting words and the peace/tranquility of an individual (see where other states might have a disorderly conduct, assault, threats, or harassment statute that covers that conduct.

Fine $250 for being a dumbass and Prof. Avery just might deserve that “kick me” sign if he makes a habit of pressing cases like this.

Jim G. says:

I agree that “disturbing the peace” is a strange legal category for this particular issue. However, I notice that no one here is asking the question as to whether the contents were actually threatening or not. The actual content of the email is significant, not just that the rant was delivered via email. It’s still illegal to call someone on the phone and threaten to kill them even though “they can just hang up.”

barren waste says:

Re: Re:

Well, I’m fairly certain that if there had been threats on the prof’s life they would have come up in the article. It would no doubt have resulted in stiffer charges than disturbing the peace, and that would have negated the charge of the article. Responding legally to threats made over the internet is much different than responding to personally offensive material and arguementative students.

angry dude says:

Disturbing The Piece of Shit

Disturbing the piece of shit Al Qaeda lover by being patriotic? Shameful that people think that just loving freedom is disturbing the peace.

All you idiots who think saying stuff online is harassment are a bunch of nose picking tards. “WAA WAA, somebody called me a name!”

What a pathetic piece of shit you are.

I wish Bush were back in office to send that Liberal Professor back to GitMo where he came from.

Try to relax your collective sphincters, hippies, and take the freedom enema you so desperately need.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Disturbing The Piece of Shit

Ahem, punky:

“Disturbing the piece of shit Al Qaeda lover by being patriotic?”

Here’s why that’s a dumb statement, because even IF you agree with the substance of what he said (and from the legal brief I saw, I saw little political opinion and a lot of hateful vernacular), you wouldn’t say he was JUST being patriotic. By the kids own admission he acted like a jackass, which is why he apologized for what he’d said. Regardless of which side of the aisle you come down on, you ought to be able to describe your philosophy without personally attacking the other person, otherwise you don’t have a definable philosophy, only one defined by opposition.

“All you idiots who think saying stuff online is harassment are a bunch of nose picking tards. “WAA WAA, somebody called me a name!””

I 100% agree, you cock-smoking fucktard 🙂

“I wish Bush were back in office to send that Liberal Professor back to GitMo where he came from.”

Finally, an admission that Bush abused and would continue to abuse Gitmo. Plus, if I’m reading the Appellate brief correctly, this professor became a Congressman during the course of the trial, or just before. So Bush would send a sitting Congressman to Gitmo because of what he thinks? Sadly, I think you’re right. I just wouldn’t want it to happen.

“Try to relax your collective sphincters, hippies, and take the freedom enema you so desperately need.”

If you’re trying to be ironic, that is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. If not, then it’s just sad that you don’t have any idea what freesom actually means.

angry dude says:

Re: Re: Disturbing The Piece of Shit

If you’re trying to be ironic, that is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. If not, then it’s just sad that you don’t have any idea what freesom actually means.

oh, I think I know what a “freesom” is…

It’s when 2 or more commie pinko hippie liberals get together and circle-jerk into each other’s gaping pie-holes.

That’s what a Freesom is.

madjack (profile) says:

Libel In Email Address

I’ve never been comfortable with claims of “disturbing the peace” as one person’s threshold for peace may be quite low compared to another person’s making it difficult to establish a reasonable standard. However, I am certain an email address can libel.

If someone registered and e-mailed all the local schools and parks officials in his community without saying anything libelous in the body of the e-mail, I think Mr. Doe would be libeled, with the only defense being if it were true.

In this case, if the professor was the only one to see it, maybe it’s truly not even libel. However, something tells me the kid probably showed it to his friends. That would make him vulnerable to civil litigation, if not criminal prosecution for disturbing the peace.

Anonymous Coward says:

Cyber intimidation is a real issue, it might be funny to those of us who let the crap roll off our backs like water off a duck, but for other people, it can cause issues.

The student’s comments would appear to be enough to make the teacher change his ways of doing things to avoid problems. That is intimidation, plain and simple.

doubleshot says:


Looks like this is the guy here:

Bill?s devotion to teaching earned him numerous awards and teaching honors, including the Douglas Bereuter Distinguished Teaching Award for Undergraduate Instruction; Mortar Board Society Professor of the Month; four Certificates of Recognition for Contributions to Students; Beta Theta Pi Award for Excellence in Education; Who?s Who Among America?s Teachers; and two-time finalist for Educator of the Year by vote of student body at UNL. He also wrote or edited six books and 30 published articles.

natefrog says:

Content of e-mails

Available @


You can go f**k yourself if you are going to get that way. I’d kick your a** had you said that right in front of me, but YoU don’t have the guts to say that. If you think you do, just try me. . . We call you people turncoats. . .

This wasn’t just a simple “nasty e-mail.” There were threats involved.

barrenwaste (profile) says:

In regards to the email

Quite infantile, but hardly intimidating. I heard worse on the playground in elementary school. If that is enough to cause a person to change thier actions/views, then they truly are the cowards the words call them. I’m not defending the student, mind you, but this is hardly the kind of thing to lose sleep over. Put the kid in detention, slap a dunce hat on him, and get back to teaching. To take this kind of thing to court is not only a waste of our resources, but an admission of failure on the part of the school system. After all, a large part of public schooling is to teach people how to interact socially.

Hmm, come to think of it, with those kind of role models and teachers it’s no wonder that ninety percent of our youth is worthless.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: In regards to the email

I heard worse on the playground in elementary school.

Yeah, kids often don’t know any better than to do certain things. That’s why we cut them a little more slack. As an adults, however, people are expected to know better.

Put the kid in detention, slap a dunce hat on him, and get back to teaching.

The person in this case is an adult. Please at least read the story before commenting on it.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Disturbing the peace with an email

Knee-jerk reaction again, Mike.
From the article, we don’t have the foggiest idea if the email went ONLY to the professor, or was broadcast to the world – we don’t know what else went into it, such as why the student went from apologetic to offensive.

WE JUST DON’T KNOW enough to decide if this was a good decision, bad decision, or “in-between”.

Mike, you are an excellent journalist – don’t descend into yellow journalism (as too many newspapers have)!

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