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Editorial: Sawyer's case and a legal precedent

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Posted on April 26, 2018 |
By Angelo Lynn



In the case against Jack Sawyer, the Poultney teen who allegedly threatened to kill students at Fair Haven Union High School back in February, it’s not difficult to understand the defense’s argument. Of the four charges levied against Sawyer, two included attempted aggravated murder and attempted first-degree murder, even though (as far as we know or has been reported) he never set foot on the school grounds with weapons in his possession. That the state Supreme Court ruled with the defense and dropped the attempted murder charges is not that unexpected.

Still, how does that ruling meet the standard of common sense if protecting members of our society is a worthy goal?

And if law enforcement officials tell students and parents and the community at large that keeping our eyes and ears open and reporting suspicious behavior is our best defense, then how does that advice square with this Supreme Court decision?

Surely society has to have some way to stop such attacks before they happen, and the Legislature is struggling to come up with a suitable approach before the curtains close on the current session. One of the key obstacles is how not to run afoul of First Amendment protections.

But while First Amendment rights are important in these circumstances, there is a precedent to consider. That precedent is Title 18, Section 871 in the U.S. Code that lists threatening the president of the United States as a felony. The statute states that any person who “knowingly and willfully” makes “any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States,” shall be prosecuted under that statue, which also includes presidential candidates, former presidents, the vice-president and Senate leader. Punishment is a fine and up to five years imprisonment.

There is also adequate case law around this statute, which deals with the thorny First Amendment issues. It’s not apples to apples — Section 871 is listed as a political crime — but suffice it to say that if laws can be written to protect the president, vice-president and others against credible threats, the same principles could be applied to protecting mass gatherings of people — such as schools and classrooms full of children, sports stadiums and other venues where large numbers of people gather.

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