AUSTIN HAUGHWOUT v. LAURA TORDENTI et al., SC 20076

Judicial District of New Britain

 

      Freedom of Speech; Whether College Student's Statements and Gestures Constituted True Threats.  The plaintiff was expelled from Central Connecticut State University (CCSU), and he brought this action against CCSU officials claiming that his expulsion violated his constitutional right to freedom of speech and seeking that he be reinstated as a student  The plaintiff's expulsion stemmed from reports made by other students that he (1) made hand gestures as if he was aiming a gun and shooting at other students, (2) wondered aloud how many rounds he would need to shoot people at the school, (3) mentioned that he had bullets at his home and in his vehicle, (4) showed pictures of guns he owned and bragged about bringing a gun to school, (5) named a particular student as his “number one target,” (6) made reference to a shooting at an Oregon community college where several students had been killed and stated that the Oregon shooting had “beat us,” and (7) stated during a testing of the school's alarm system that “someone should really shoot up the school for real so it's not a drill.”  The trial court rendered judgment for the defendants, concluding that the plaintiff failed to prove that his free speech rights were violated.  The court indicated that the right to freedom of speech is not absolute and that a person cannot utter what has come to be known as a “true threat” and claim the protection of either the federal or state constitution.  It stated that a “true threat” encompasses those statements meant to communicate a serious expression of intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals and that the speaker need not actually intend to carry out the threat.  It further determined that the question of whether a statement may be considered a true threat is governed by an objective standard of whether a reasonable person would foresee that the statement would be interpreted as a serious expression of intent to harm or assault.  The trial court found that the plaintiff's communications fit the definition of true threats and were certainly not statements that sought to communicate a belief or idea.  It determined that although some students treated the plaintiff's communications as jokes, others reported being alarmed by the plaintiff’s statements.  It noted that gestures and statements like those made by the plaintiff on a college campus at such a time are the very kind of statements that any reasonable person would foresee as creating fear on the part of fellow students.  The plaintiff appeals, and the Supreme Court will determine whether the trial court properly concluded that his statements and gestures constituted true threats that were not constitutionally protected.  The plaintiff argues that his words and gestures constituted either political commentary or grim humor and that they were protected under free speech principles.