Kentucky Zombie update
Having been burned once, I promised to try to keep up with new developments. Well, there’s been one, although I’m a couple of days late noticing it. (I'm rather surprised the anonymous commentor who had been so vocal in my previous post didn't remind me.) Mr. Poole has finally been arraigned, as described here and here.
Here's an excerpt:
William Poole, 18, was arrested February 22. In a jailhouse interview with LEX 18 News shortly after his arrest, Poole said that the writings that got him arrested are being taken out of context. Investigators say they discovered materials at Poole's home that outline possible acts of violence aimed at students, teachers, and police.OK, so it looks as though the police account is probably closer to the truth than I had wanted to believe. However, one thing the police involved in the case keep saying still disturbs me:
In court Tuesday, police released some of Poole's writings, and they contradict some of what he told LEX 18 in his interview. Poole says he wrote the short story for English class. Not so, according to police. They say his teachers deny knowing about such writings, and add if they did, the teachers would have reported their concerns about the contents to school officials.
Some of the details Poole wrote about included wanting to assemble a group of boys he called "True Soldiers and "No Limit Soldiers" to take over a high school.
Police say they've interviewed seven George Rogers Clark High School students who say Poole tried to recruit them into his group.
Investigators add that Poole wrote about bringing weapons and tools into a school. And, perhaps most disturbing, they say Poole wrote down what he called "Dates of Death", which happened to be February 19 and 20 of 2005 - dates mentioned that were just two days before police arrested Poole.
Even so, police say the nature of the story makes it a felony. "Anytime you make any threat or possess matter involving a school or function it's a felony in the state of Kentucky," said Winchester Police detective Steven Caudill.Let’s get this straight. ANY time? “Possess matter involving a school”? What does he mean by that? Does “matter involving a school” include possessing a school yearbook maybe? I may have been wrong to swallow Poole’s story so uncritically at first, but this story still suggests to me that the police in Kentucky have gone off the deep end a bit and that their law against “terroristic threatening” is way too vague. In the end, after having learned a lot more, what scares me the most about this incident is the "nature of the story makes it a felony" statement by the police. Does it bother you? If it doesn't, it should. It sounds like censorship and violation of my free speech. That’s way scarier than Poole, in my book, given that Poole is looking more and more like a disturbed young man who got busted for having fantasies that disturbed young men often have.
Let’s assume, however, that Poole wrote exactly what the police claim he wrote (although we may never know now if that’s the case, because the judge ordered his writings sealed—which makes me suspect that the end result of this case will be a plea deal in which Poole’s writings are permanently sealed, thus sparing the police any embarrassment if the writings turn out not to be as threatening as claimed). The police have never stated that what Poole wrote wasn’t a story, as Poole claimed, at least not as far as I can tell from the news reports. So, in essence, the police are saying that writing a story whose content sounds like a threat against a school is a felony in and of itself.
A felony? What about the First Amendment? Try to convince me that this sort of law and reaction aren’t a danger to free speech. But, before you do, consider the law itself, as quoted here:
Under Kentucky law, a person is guilty of terroristic threatening in the second degree when they threaten to "commit any act likely to result in death or serious physical injury" to students, teachers or employees of a school.Now consider what little we actually do know about what Poole wrote, as described in court testimony and reported. Here is an excerpt from the writings, the only one quoted verbatim thus far (descriptions of other parts are here and here, but no other direct quotes):
They stood at the yard carrying bags full of weapons and tools. They yelled kill them. All of soldiers of zone two started shooting. They are dropping every one of them. After five minutes all the people were laying on the ground dead. [Note: According to the cited stories, Poole's fictional organization was broken up into four zones. Zone One was in Barbourville, Kentucky; Zone Two was Clark County; Zone Three was in South Carolina; and Zone Four was in New York City.]Is the above quote disturbing, coming, as it does, from a high school student? Sure. Poorly written? Definitely. But it still sounds like a piece of a story to me, albeit a bad one. I’m not sure how this constitutes “terroristic threatening” or whether Poole is actually “threatening” to actually do what is described. It’s hard to tell for sure, given how little was revealed in the news reports of the court testimony. However, if what is described in the court testimony as described in the news stories is the most threatening of Poole’s writings (not an unreasonable assumption, given that the police knew they were under the microscope and that they wanted to get an indictment), then I don’t see how Poole’s writing should be criminalized even under the disturbingly vague criteria of the Kentucky terroristic threatening law, even if the police have represented it accurately. It should not be against the law for even a minor to write something like that just because it was written about a school. I hope that even those who have commented on my first post about this incident so vociferously in favor of Poole’s being arrested can understand why I find the law under which Poole was arrested and charged very disturbing as far as our First Amendment rights go. (And, no, Poole's story is not like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater or inciting a mob to violence. It appears to be far too vague to meet the criteria for presently accepted exceptions to the First Amendment of incitement, threats, or imminent danger.)
Don’t get me wrong. Don’t jump to the conclusion that I don’t care about the contents of the story. I’m not saying that teachers or police should ignore such a violent story if they come across it or that they should not be concerned enough about it to report it to the authorities. However, the state doesn’t need to criminalize speech to prevent a disturbed student from violent acts. For example, the story could certainly serve as reasonable grounds to search Poole’s house, locker, and anywhere else the police could think of for weapons. It’s not necessary to make writing the story itself into a felony, especially since there are no specific threats or people mentioned in it. (Remember, as far as I can tell, the only crime Poole has so far been charged with is “terroristic threatening.”) Similarly, the police claim that Poole tried to recruit others to his “group” to help him take over the school. If that’s actually the case, then I’d be willing to bet that there are plenty of laws against conspiracies that could have be used to prosecute him. But that’s not the law the prosecutor chose. He chose the terroristic threatening law. Finally, I tend agree with Poole’s grandparents. He probably needs counseling and psychological help, not jail.
So, while I was disturbed about the arrest of Poole when I first read about it, it turns out that I had gotten myself all worked up for the wrong reason. I now correct my mistake. Now I’m getting myself all worked up about this incident for what I believe to be the right reason—its negative implications for free speech. Under Kentucky’s “terroristic threatening” law as it was interpreted in this case, I would have to be afraid that writing any violent story set in a school or anything involving a school that could be remotely perceived by someone as threatening might potentially be considered a felony in Kentucky. If I lived in Kentucky and were a writer, I’d be very afraid of writing any sort of fiction in which anything worse than a bad case of acne happens in a school.
Perhaps you think that's no great loss. I disagree. As Benjamin Franklin once famously said:
They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.