October 5, 2003, I received an email from David Green, Executive Director of the First Amendment Project in Oakland, telling of the arrest of a teenager named George "Julius"T. I was a member of PEN Center USA West, a writers' group concerned with free speech issues for writers, so Green wrote me as a writer in PEN. When George T was a fifteen-year-old new sophomore at Saint Teresa High School in San Jose, California, he gave a poem he had just written to two girls he was acquainted with from his high school honors English class. He told them that it described his feelings. The timing was unfortunate. March, 2001, two weeks after the horrific Santee shootings at that San Diego high school, many students and most school officials throughout California were edgy and anxious.
George’s poem “Faces” upset the two girls so much one emailed the poem to her high school English teacher while the other broke into tears. That next Sunday the police arrested George T at his home. After he was convicted of making a criminal threat for giving the poem to the two girls, he spent 100 days in juvenile hall and was expelled from school. George T. now had a felony conviction. When he appealed the juvenile judge’s decision, the appeal court upheld the decision, and now the case was before the California Supreme Court. David Green asked me to join group of writers in a friends-of-the-court (amicus) brief on behalf of George T. The email contained a copy of George T’s poem:
Who are these faces around me?
Where did they come from?
They would probably become the
next doctors or loirs or something. All
really intelligent and ahead of their
game. I wish I had a choice on
what I want to be like they do.
All so happy and vagrant. Each
Original in their own way. They
Make me want to puke. For I am
Dark, Destructive & Dangerous. I
Slap on my face of happiness but
Inside I am evil!! For I can be
the next kid to bring guns to
kill students at school. So Parents
watch your children cuz I'm BACK!!
by: Julius AKA Angel.
The page on which the poem appeared was labeled "Dark Poetry." David Green said, “Julius testified [in juvenile court] that he used that label so that a reader would understand that his writings were fictional.”
“Faces” didn’t seem to be making any threats, so I immediately wrote David Green that I’d join the friend-of-the-court brief; a couple days later I sent him a short biographical sketch and described how violent themes are in my poetry including one poem I wrote about a woman who murdered the man who was stalking her. Yes, I wrote some poems with a character who didn’t just threaten violence but did murder. During the spring I taught Oedipus Rex to my literature students, exploring the psychology of the main character who killed his father. One of my favorite writers has always been Dostoyevsky who explored the psychology of murderers in his novels. Literature is full of violence. Doing some research I learned that George T. was only one of numerous students around the country who have been arrested for stories, poetry, or art with violent themes after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.
A few weeks later the written amicus brief arrived. My fellow members of the brief who all said they used violence in their writings were J.M. Coetzee, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003; Michael Chabon, who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for literature; Peter Straub, an award-winning author of sixteen fantasy and horror novels; Harlan Ellison, one of the United States’ leading science fiction writers; George Garrett, 2002 Virginia Poet Laureate; Ayelet Waldman, a public defender and mystery writer; Neil Gaiman, an author of 40 adult, children’s and fantasy novels; Jayne Stahl, a widely published poet; Michael Rothenberg, a poet, editor and songwriter; Greg Rucka, a comic book writer and novelist; and Floyd Salas, an author of four novels. I felt proud to be part of the team going out in defense of George T.
The amicus brief was fascinating reading, starting with quotes from Hamlet and Eminem showing both fellows to have violent imaginations. Then it discussed confessional poetry of “Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, W.D. Snodgrass and others [which] are characteristically first person expressions of extraordinarily mean, ugly, violent or harrowing experiences.” After establishing the “dark poetry” ancestors of George T, the brief then said that with artistic works “a very strong presumption exists against the existence of a ‘true threat’” because art works are “designed not to inflict harm but rather to address it.” I liked that idea a lot: we explore violence in our writings not to do violence but to understand violence.
July 22, 2004, the California State Supreme Court overturned George T’s felony conviction, arguing that the poem wasn’t a clear threat under California’s criminal threat law. Justice Carlos R. Moreno who wrote the decision felt that “Faces” is a “discomforting and unsettling poem,” but not a threat because George wrote that he could bring guns to school but not that he would. Also, George didn’t have any conflict with the teenage girls. Further, the judge mentioned the amicus brief’s argument that dark poetry is “not unusual in literature” and has a long literary pedigree. Our writers’ arguments were heard by and had impact on the judge. I felt jubilation at hearing the verdict!
Happily, George's conviction will be erased from his record. As he’s now finishing high school and was afraid that the felony conviction would keep him from entering the military, he doesn’t have to fear any more from this incident. Also, University of Santa Clara Law professor said this decision means that prosecutors will hopefully be less likely to haul into court high school students who have written a poem or story. Further, the Court’s decision said that while school officials can use disciplinary measures like expulsion to ensure school safety, the courts must stringently review criminal convictions that involve creative work. Even the prosecutor Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey M. Laurence had to accept that artworks have some protection. The ACLU of Northern California, who argued on George T’s behalf, said the decision was “a resounding victory for students’ 1st Amendment rights.”