April 19, 2007

Max Karson's Arresting Comments--Overreaction And Censorship Or Sensible Precaution?

CU student Max Karson's ill-timed comments (the question of legality is to be decided, as you will see below) have earned him notoriety, an arrest for "interference", and suspension from school pending his trial:
A University of Colorado student has been arrested after making "threatening" comments in class that seemed sympathetic toward the gunman who killed 32 students at Virginia Tech, authorities said.

Max Karson of Denver was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of interfering with staff, faculty or students of an education institution.
. . .
University police Cmdr. Brad Wiesley said that during a class discussion of the Virginia Tech massacre, Karson "made comments about understanding how someone could kill 32 people."

Several witnesses told investigators Karson said he was "angry about all kinds of things from the fluorescent light bulbs to the unpainted walls, and it made him angry enough to kill people," according to a police report.
. . .
Karson has also produced a video on youtube that ends in a deadly shooting he called a comedy.
The film has been made private since I viewed it; it depicted Karson as a jokester given three minutes to make another guy laugh--he is ultimately unsuccessful, and the other individual shoots him. His site is still up for now. The class, for what its worth, was a women's black studies course.

His father, a University of Denver professor, argues that his son's words, however ill-advised, we're neither illegal nor threatening. The school, in his opinion, has violated his free speech rights. Attorney David Lane, of Ward Churchill fame, suggests that a violation of free speech may have occurred, but his ambiguous statement about killings are questionable, and context is important.

What were Karson's words? There is little detail, other than this purported quote:
"If anyone in here says that they've never been so angry that you wanted to kill 32 people, you're lying," Karson said, according to a statement made by a CU faculty member.
People say stupid things all the time; in the heat of passion, words become weapons. Most people would readily admit that in a particularly angry state they have made some statement along the lines of "I am so angry I could do . . . to that person." But serious contemplation of killing innocent people (not in self-defense)? Highly unlikely. Context is important, as is the state of mind of the person making such a declaration. Karson's intent is clearly in question.

In this case, Karson's words unsurprisingly disturbed his classmates and teacher. His previous record of antagonizing CU's administration and fellow students gives a picture of Karson as an agent provacateur, willing to engage others with (to his mind) alternative points-of-view. My defense of his writings last November (a search of his name yields more on his past).

In light of the events at VT, his statements threw up all the usual red flags, and earned him his arrest and suspension. They may earn him more than just notoriety. They also call attention to the heightened state of emotion following the VT massacre--Karson's words, if made in class just last week, would have perhaps raised eyebrows and snickering from his fellow students. This week, he went to jail.

The debate over how to prevent future Columbines and VT massacres includes the discussion of intervention when "red flags" are apparent. Is the fear justified or is Karson's audience overreacting? Second-guessing becomes the name of the game following any tragedy. One can understand CUPD's desire to protect students and faculty from potential harm. People across the country would be hopping mad if the CUPD heard complaints about Karson and failed to take action.

So which is it? Can we have it both ways--unfettered free speech (unless inciting violence, which is at question here) or the "mask" of safety in charging those with disturbing thoughts and expressions with crimes, so as to prevent larger catastrophes?

Karson has earned himself, rightly or wrongly, a day in court. The context of his statements will be revealed in more detail. Is having disturbing (to others) thoughts a crime? Is he victim of of his own poor judgment and timing? Or has CUPD averted a future massacre? It is doubtful the court decision will render a definitive answer, but the outcome will assuredly lead to more questions on how or if we can avoid yet another Columbine or VT massacre.

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