A Kentucky teenager is arrested for making “terroristic threats” in writing, according to a report from Lexington, Kentucky’s NBC affiliate WLEX-TV.
William Poole, 18, is being held at Clark County Detention Center after police were contacted about a short story he wrote about zombies attacking a high school. The teen’s high school is not mentioned by name and no specific individuals are mentioned as targets.
But that didn’t stop police from taking the student into custody and charging him with 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.
Poole says it is a misunderstanding:
“It didn’t mention nobody who lives in Clark County, didn’t mention (George Rogers Clark High School), didn’t mention no principal or cops, nothing. Half the people at high school know me. They know I’m not that stupid, that crazy.” [sic]
Poor grammar aside, Poole says he was writing the short story as part of a portfolio for English class. His grandparents apparently went through his journal, found the story, and were concerned enough to call police.
The school’s principal, John Atkins, told the Student Press Law Center that Poole’s teachers aren’t aware of any kind of project of that kind. There were other reasons, he said, to be concerned:
“It did not mention [Clark High School or school officials] specifically but it did mention ‘the high school,’ and how many teachers were there and how long it would take the police to arrive once they received an emergency call. It implied very strongly that it was referring to this school.”
I found the first mention of this story at Jeff VanderMeer’s journal, “VanderWorld.” Many other writers are weighing in across the blogosphere, sounding an alarm of Big Brother’s attempts to rob young writers of their freedom of artistic expression. I have read comments about police and school administrators going off the deep end.
I’m certainly concerned about a work of fiction being turned into a Columbine-like threat. One would hope that telling the difference between creativity and danger would be easy.
But there’s just one thing: Police were called by the student’s grandparents. Neither article makes any mention of Poole’s parents, so it isn’t clear whether he lives with his grandparents or whether they were simply visiting. Apparently, they were going through his journal when they found the story. Why? The article doesn’t say.
But it does make one wonder whether his behavior might have sent up red flags that prompted his family to look for possible reasons. If they already suspected that something was wrong, such a story might have prompted them to be more concerned. But that’s just a guess…I haven’t read the story. Neither have those who are so quick to condemn everyone but the writer.
The fact is, in our post 9/11-world, we all lose.
The young writer isn’t allowed to be 100% creative because unless he spells out that he’s not threatening anyone, his words could be misinterpreted and he could find himself where Poole finds himself. The writer’s only real choice is to cramp creative freedom to make sure nothing he writes won’t appear threatening one way or another; since different people can read very different things into the same material, this is virtually impossible.
And the school officials and police are also between a rock and a hard place. They have to investigate all threats — or whatever they genuinely think are threats — or run the risk of allowing a “warning sign” to go unchecked and finding themselves trying to explain why another school tragedy didn’t have to happen. They certainly can’t be expected to ignore the possibility of a threat when a student’s own family contacts them!
If the “threat” is found to be the nonsense that it very likely is, what should we do? Throw his family, the school principal and the prosecutor into the detention center for scaring a community? Could a misinterpreted threat constitute a terrorist scare?
There’s no way to win here.