Angry Emails From Student To Professor Protected As Free Speech

from the good-news dept

Last year, we covered a really bad ruling in Nebraska, involving a student who sent some angry, obnoxious, profanity-laden emails to a professor he disagreed with politically, accusing him of being a traitor and threatening to fight him. Beyond being the student’s political science professor, he was also running for political office at the time. After a short back-and-forth, the professor told the student he was offended and asked him to stop emailing. In response, the student actually sent a long apology, saying he really liked the professor and just wanted to debate the issue with someone smart, but with a different view.

A few months went by, and the professor received two anonymous emails from a Yahoo address that used the professor’s name as a part of the email address (the professor’s last name was Avery, and the email username was averylovesalqueda). The emails were tracked back to the student, and he was charged with disturbing the peace. A state district court convicted him of that, and the appeals court upheld it. Yes, “disturbing the peace,” for sending an angry email to one person. The court said that there was no First Amendment protections because the emails were “fighting words.” While it was true that some of the earlier emails did say the student wanted to fight the professor, the two emails that resulted in the charges did not. They were just the standard insulting, poorly-worded, politically-tinged emails, not all that different than what you’d probably find on a political forum online. The ruling seemed pretty troubling for a variety of reasons… but thankfully, it looks like a higher court also found it problematic.

Michael Scott points us to the news that the Nebraska Supreme Court has overturned the lower court ruling and has said that the emails had First Amendment protections. The court has an interesting discussion of what constitutes “fighting words,” and it’s pretty clear these emails did not qualify for the kind of “fighting words” that get past First Amendment considerations. Specifically: “to fall within the First Amendment exception for fighting words, speech must be ‘shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest.'”

The court also (thankfully) recognized the context of the speech, which was an angry political discussion:

The context of Drahota’s speech was an ongoing political debate, not random obscenities directed at small children, which could likely provoke a response from nearby adults. Here, Drahota and Avery had corresponded for months on political issues. And both had made provocative statements during that dialog without incident. The First Amendment encourages robust political debate, particularly the right to criticize public officials and measures

Always nice to see a court recognize free speech rights — even when the content may come across as offensive to some. Below is the full ruling:

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