The names of two of the "mad bombers" of the Albemarle County government schools have been revealed by the Daily Progress. One of the boys, who was found guilty of conspiracy charges, has a curious link to the schools in the past.
Alan Newsom, a 15-year-old football player and one-time missionary to Uganda with no criminal record, successfully sued the Albemarle County School Board in asserting his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and of expression. He did this when he was a student at Jack Jouett Middle School and a teacher ordered him to take off an NRA t-shirt. (Alan engaged in target practice at the Rivanna Rifle and Pistol Club but otherwise did not use guns.) Support for the Second Amendment is not popular among government school administrators, who are among the whiniest liberals one can find.
To top it off, the Albemarle schools were embarrassed by receiving a 2004 Muzzle Award from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression:
In 2002, while enrolled in the sixth grade at Jack Jouett Middle School in Albemarle County, Virginia, twelve-year-old Alan Newsom attended a weekend shooting sports camp sponsored by the National Rifle Association. Among the topics taught at the camp was gun safety. As a souvenir of the experience, Alan took home a t-shirt which depicted three silhouettes of men holding firearms superimposed on the letters "NRA" and positioned above the phrase "Shooting Sports Camp." In April 2002, Alan wore the t-shirt to school. During the lunch period, an assistant principal approached Alan and gave him the choice of removing the shirt or wearing it inside out. Alan chose the latter course. Although at the time there was nothing in the school's written dress code policy that prohibited clothing depicting weapons, it was the assistant principal's opinion that the shirt was inappropriate for a middle school setting. According to Alan, the shirt elicited little response from other students until he was forced to wear it inside out. "It was really embarrassing," said Alan. The assistant principal later acknowledged that the only disruption caused by the shirt that day was the time she had to take away from her other duties to discuss the inappropriateness of the shirt with Alan.
When Alan's father learned of the incident and the embarrassment it caused his son, he contacted the NRA. On Alan's behalf, the NRA wrote the school in May asking it to reconsider its position on the shirt and apologize to Alan. Rather than do either, the school instead revised its dress code policy to prohibit messages on clothing relating to "drugs, alcohol, tobacco, weapons, violence, sex, vulgarity...." Believing his son had been wrongly singled out and deserved an apology, Alan's father, represented by legal counsel for the NRA, filed suit on Alan's behalf in U.S. District Court. The suit included the Albemarle School Board among the defendants and alleged that the new 2002-2003 dress code policy was unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The district court denied a subsequent request to issue a preliminary injunction. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision, however, finding that there was a strong likelihood that Alan would prevail if the case went to trial. The Court of Appeals described the 2002-2003 policy as "practically limitless" in finding that it "excludes a broad range and scope of symbols, images, and political messages that are entirely legitimate and even laudatory." The Court noted that among the images that could be banned under the policy was the State Seal of Virginia for its depiction of a woman holding a spear and standing with one foot on the chest of a vanquished tyrant. The Court also noted the irony that Albemarle County High School (located across the street from Jack Jouett Middle School) uses the image of a patriot armed with a musket as its school mascot.
In awarding this Muzzle, the Thomas Jefferson Center is not insensitive to the difficult task that public school administrators face in preventing disruption of the school day. Decisions often must be made on the spur of the moment and that understandably may reflect errors in judgment. As such, the Center recognizes that school officials must enjoy a limited degree of discretion in making decisions about student expression.
Such discretion, however, is not absolute. Public school dress code policies should be drafted in a manner that minimizes the possibility of arbitrary enforcement by school administrators. Despite the fact the text of the 2002-2003 dress code policy extended to images such as the State Seal and the Albemarle County High School's mascot, it was clear that school administrators intended to disregard the policy text when it came to these and other "appropriate" depictions of weapons. Yet, the images on Alan Newsom's t-shirt were entirely lawful and non-disruptive, particularly when viewed in the context of the words "NRA" and "Shooting Sports Camp." Moreover, when an error is made in applying a dress code policy, it should be acknowledged rather than defended as a legitimate exercise of school authority. To date, the Albemarle County School Board has refused to apologize to Alan Newsom and thereby earns a 2004 Jefferson Muzzle.
It should be noted that none of the four students -- the others were two 13-year-olds and a 16-year-old -- were found guilty of any crime against persons or property. They did not actually blow anything up. They did not shoot anyone. They did not even hit anyone or steal someone's lunch.
They were all convicted of "conspiracy," which means all they did was talk about something that could be construed as a criminal act. And what they seem to have talked about -- the court proceedings being closed to press and public -- is a fantasy about blowing up a school building.
Put four people in a room to talk about a fantasy like that, have one of them type up their thoughts and turn it into a script, then put it on television, and you give them million-dollar contracts and an Emmy award. (Does anyone watch "24"?)
When one person has a fantasy about a crime, it remains personal. Unless, of course, he writes it down and publishes a book. Then he ends up like Dashiell Hammett or Mickey Spillane.
But when two people share a fantasy about a crime, that becomes a conspiracy. "Conspiracy" is a phony charge. It's what prosecutors reach for when they do not have enough evidence to sustain a conviction on an actual crime. Conspiracy charges are to the law what magic incantations are to ju-ju: Simply saying the words triggers the crime.
"Conspiracy" that involves crimes that are never realized (that is, never committed) should not by itself be a crime. Such a charge is simply a tool of intimidation for overzealous prosecutors.
After browbeating by police and the Commonwealth's Attorney -- who view sexy crimes like this as a real feather in their caps -- any teenager will buckle under pressure. And that's how four fresh-faced teenagers get sent to prison until they're 21 years old.
I can just imagine one of them facing his first job interview after being released.
I do not think it is a coincidence that one of the "conspirators" accused by the schools of wanting to detonate a schoolhouse is someone who openly challenged the authority of the school system, and who won because he was right.
"So," says the potential employer, "what kind of extracurricular activities did you do in high school?"
"Um, none, sir."
"I didn't go to high school."
"And what have you been doing for the past eight years?"
"I've been living with gang members and drug dealers and boys who molested their sisters -- but in prison, they molested me instead."
"Do you have any skills?"
"Well, I can turn a toothbrush into a shiv. I'm adept at hiding contraband in bodily orifices. And the boys on my cell block voted me 'fellator of the year' three out of the last four years."
"That's all very interesting, but I'm sorry, son, you have no education, no experience, and a criminal record. I can't hire someone like you."
Having Alan Newsom arrested and ruining his life sends a strong signal to other students: "Don't rock the boat. Don't assert your First Amendment rights. Follow instructions, don't look to the right or the left, don't be creative or show initiative. Students are sheep and government schools are the shepherd."
The arrest of Alan Newsom, and his conviction on flimsy evidence (the police removed "firecrackers" from his father's gun safe-- this is supposed to blow up a school?) is clearly meant to create a chilling effect against future uppity students who think they know more about the Constitution than school administrators do.
I am sure that I will be criticized by those who claim to know more about the case than I do. But if there really were convincing evidence that an actual crime was committed, or was about to be committed, the prosecutors would have made that public. They did not. What exactly do they have to hide?