A California statute prohibiting persons from making a false report about a bomb or other explosive device does not violate the First Amendment, a state appeals court has ruled. The appeals court decided the constitutional issue in the case of a high school student who told another student that he would blow up the school one day.
J.M. and A.B. attended high school together. A.B. asked J.M. if he was going to graduate and J.M. replied that he was behind on his credits. He then allegedly told A.B.: “I will blow up the school one day and I know where to find an army grenade [sic].”
A.B., who did not consider J.M. violent, nevertheless worried that J.M. might commit an act of violence at school. She told school personnel who contacted law enforcement. Law enforcement scoured J.M.’s cell phone and his home but found no bomb or grenades.
Nevertheless, J.M. was charged with violating the following California law:
Any person who maliciously informs any other person that a bomb or other explosive has been or will be placed or secreted in any public or private place, knowing that the information is false, is guilty of a crime.
After being found delinquent in juvenile court, J.M. appealed, contending that he did not intend to make a false report of a bomb or explosive device and that the statute was substantially overbroad.
Regarding his intent, J.M. contended that he was merely frustrated and made the statement in a joking manner. The appeals court was not convinced, writing in In Re J.M.: “Nor does constitutional protection result merely because the words might have been said jokingly or in a moment of frustration. Neither A.B. nor any other person should have to guess whether J.M. or some other speaker is serious.”
J.M. also argued that the statute simply restricts too much speech that ought to be protected. The appeals court rejected that argument, writing that the statute applies to speech that is not constitutionally protected.
The decision is somewhat troubling, as it does not appear that J.M. had any intent to actually blow up his school. He was merely frustrated at not being able to graduate. Nevertheless, he did make the statement to another student, which led to this predicament.
David L. Hudson Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute, and a law professor at Belmont University who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment titled “Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment” (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).