Allen Lee, an 18 year old straight “A” student at Cary-Grove High School, was arrested for thinking violent thoughts and charged with two counts of disorderly conduct. Lee’s senior English teacher, after reading what Lee wrote in response to a “Free Writing” assignment was disturbed enough to report the incident to the school’s principal. The school then notified the Cary police and the decision was made to arrest Lee.In America we do not criminalize thinking. What is criminalized is action. One can think all kinds of evil thoughts so long as one does not act on those thoughts there is no crime. In America we do not arrest authors for writing violent passages, for writing bad poetry, for writing propaganda or any other authorial endeavor. There is no Gestapo, KGB, SS, or Secret Police; no thought police and no book burners.
As a teacher of writing and author of a book on teaching writing, I understand the “Free Writing” assignment and advocate two versions of the practice in my book Teaching Writing in the Inclusive Classroom: Strategies and Skills for All Students, Grades 6 – 12 (Jossey-Bass Teacher). I do not, however, advocate arresting a student for responding to an assignment irregardless of how inappropriate I believe the product of the assignment to be. There are appropriate measures such as referring the offending student to counseling services, psychiatric services or social services, parent, teacher student conferences, and the like. But in America we don’t call the cops for thinking and writing.
While I understand the concern the school had considering the horrendous events at Virginia Tech, there is no justification for over reacting to Lee’s writing. The message sent is irreversible, sending a chilling effect through the entire creative process. I would urge the school to reconsider charging Lee with this crime and pursue appropriate measures to try to understand what is going on here.