The Connecticut Supreme Court has upheld the expulsion of a college student for making statements and gestures that it concluded could reasonably be interpreted as threats that represent unprotected speech under the First Amendment.
In Haughwout v. Tordenti, 332 Conn. 559 (2019), the student plaintiff, Austin Haughwout, sued Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) after he was expelled for comments related to gun violence. The student argued that his statements, such as, “Someone should shoot up this school,” and shooting hand gestures were hyperbolic and humorous statements on a matter of public concern, and therefore protected by the First Amendment. The Connecticut Supreme Court disagreed, concluding that the statements amounted to true threats, which are not protected speech. Notably, the court acknowledged that “the relative frequency of  mass shootings informs the reasonableness of viewing the plaintiff’s remarks,” and described threats of gun violence and mass shootings “as the twenty-first century equivalent to the shout of fire in a crowded theater.” This case helps clarify the distinction between protected jokes and unprotected threats of gun violence on university campuses.
CCSU was first alerted to concerns when a fellow student went to campus police to report a “suspicious incident” at the student center. According to the reporting student, Haughwout had identified another student as “first on his hit list,” showed photos of a bullet on his cell phone, and remarked that he had loose bullets at home and in his truck. The student also reported that Haughwout had a habit of making hand gestures in the shape of handguns as a common greeting. The student acknowledged that the plaintiff’s statements were made “jokingly,” but was still alarmed by them and started avoiding the plaintiff and the student center.
In response, campus police interviewed another university student who was familiar with the plaintiff. This student recounted statements by the plaintiff that “someone should shoot up this school” or “I should just shoot up this school.” The student said these comments were made “jokingly” and the group in which they hung around dismissed what he said as a joke.
The university then began disciplinary proceedings. Though Haughwout denied making the statements and gestures, the panel concluded that the conduct warranted expulsion.
Haughwout then sued CCSU, claiming that his expulsion constituted a breach of contract, contravened an implied covenant of duty of good faith and fair dealing, and violated his state and federal constitutional rights to due process of law and to freedom of speech. The trial court rejected Haughwout’s contractual and due process claims and concluded that university officials did not violate the plaintiff’s free speech rights. Haughwout subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court.
On appeal, the Supreme Court analyzed the student’s free speech claim, considering whether it could be considered a “true threat,” and therefore not protected free speech. In the legal context, a statement of physical violence can be considered a true threat if “a reasonable person would foresee that the statement would be interpreted by those to whom the maker communicates the statement as a serious expression of intent to harm or assault … [A]lleged threats should be considered in light of their entire factual context, including the surrounding events and reaction of the listeners.” State v. Cook, 287 Conn. 237, 249 (2008).
In its decision, the Supreme Court rejected the student’s argument that his statements were not true threats because they were either jokes, lacking the “serious expression of intent” to harm, or were ambiguous, lacking the particularity necessary to be a true threat. In rejecting the student’s characterization, the court explained, “Given his express statements that he had access to firearms and ammunition, the plaintiff’s statements and gestures – especially when viewed in the context that they provide for each other – are within the realm of those that have been deemed true threats, especially in the contemporary context of school shootings.” Haughwout, 332 Conn. at 576. In addition, according to the Court, the student’s statements were sufficiently particular, as he identified one specific student as “number one” on his “hit list.” Most notable was the Court’s explicit connection between the student’s speech and past mass shootings, as it concluded that “the fear of indiscriminate and random death and injury that results from mass shootings, like Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and Columbine, transcends any one specific individual and is shared by any one of the many people who must frequent a public place – such as a university student union – that has been the subject of a threat.” Id. at 580.
This case helps illustrate the limits of free speech in the context of threatening statements made by students. As we can see from this decision, the defense that comments may have been intended as a joke may not be sufficient to protect a student from disciplinary action.