Who Killed My Dog
Violent and Threatening Imagery
Artistic Expression in Public Schools
In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that “true threats” of violence was among those categories of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment. What constitutes such a “true threat,” however, is often difficult to distinguish from constitutionally protected speech.
Expression that is reasonably understood to be an artistic statement is protected by the First Amendment even if it depicts disturbing acts of violence. On the other hand, expression that a speaker does not intend as a threat, but a listener reasonably interprets as such, may be punishable. In the context of public schools, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Yet the Supreme Court has made it equally clear that school authorities have a strong and valid interest in maintaining discipline and carrying out their educational mission. The pursuit of these goals sometimes allows restrictions on speech within the public school context that would not be tolerated elsewhere.
In 2000, seventeen year-old high school senior Sarah Boman created a poster for her art class at Bluestem High School in Leon, Kansas. The poster contains a narrative, written in the first person, exploring the question, “Who killed my dog?” Included in the narrative were the statements, “I’ll kill you if you don’t tell me who killed my dog,” and “I’ll kill you all!”Boman, an accomplished art student, stated her piece was a work of art that reflected no personal experience with a dog.
Initially, Boman was permitted to hang the poster on a door in a school hallway. The school’s principal subsequently saw the poster, found it disturbing, seized it, and ordered an investigation. A few days later, Boman was suspended from school for the remainder of the year, approximately 81.5 days.
Is this protected?
Yes. Boman sued the school district in federal court for an injunction to return to school. The U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas granted the injunction, finding that Boman’s work neither constituted a threat nor caused a substantial disruption at her school.