October 17, 2018
from the Superior Court, Joseph M. Shortall, J.
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
Cerame, Hartford, for the appellant (plaintiff).
E. Urban, assistant attorney general, with whom, on the
brief, was George Jepsen, former attorney general, for the
Rebecca E. Adams filed a brief for the Connecticut
Association of Boards of Education as amicus curiae.
C.J., and Palmer, McDonald, Mullins, Kahn, Ecker and
Conn. 561] In this appeal, we consider the limits of free
speech on a public university campus in light of recent
history that has led federal and state courts to describe
threats of gun violence and mass shootings as the
twenty-first century equivalent to the shout of fire in a
crowded theater once envisioned by Justice Oliver Wendell
Holmes, Jr. See, e.g., Ponce v. Socorro
Independent School District, 508 F.3d 765, 772 (5th Cir.
2007); Milo v. New York, 59 F.Supp.3d 513, 517
(E.D.N.Y. 2014); In re A.S., 243 Wis.2d 173, 194,
626 N.W.2d 712 (2001). The plaintiff, Austin Haughwout,
brought the present action seeking to challenge his expulsion
from Central Connecticut State University [332 Conn. 562]
(university). The plaintiff now appeals from the judgment of
the trial court in favor of the defendants, Laura Tordenti,
Ramón Hernández, Christopher Dukes, and Densil
Samuda, the university officials involved in that
decision. On appeal, the plaintiff claims that
the trial court incorrectly determined that the various
statements and gestures with respect to gun violence and mass
shootings that led to his expulsion from the university were
true threats that are not protected by the first amendment to
the United States constitution, rather than hyperbolic and
humorous statements on a matter of public concern. Although a
public university campus is a unique forum for the free
exchange of controversial, unpopular, and even offensive
ideas, we nevertheless conclude that the plaintiffs
statements and gestures were true threats. Accordingly, we
affirm the judgment of the trial court.
record reveals the following facts, as found by the trial
court, and procedural history. "On
September 17, 2015, a student at [the university]
(complainant) went to the headquarters of the campus police
to report a suspicious incident at the student center. [The
complainant] provided a written statement in which he said
plaintiff] made verbal cues discussing the physical harm of
another [university] student, identified the other student
as first on his hit list, showed digital [photographs] of a
bullet on his cell phone, and [332 Conn. 563] remarked that
he had loose bullets at home and in his truck. The
complainant said he did not know [the plaintiff], but the
statements were made in his presence. The complainant further
reported that [the plaintiff] had never shown any weapons on
his person, and that he has a habit of making hand gestures
in the shape of handguns as a common gesture.
"On September 21, 2015, the campus police interviewed
another [university] student who had known [the plaintiff]
since the spring semester [of] 2015 and hung around with him
in a group that met at the student center. That student
recounted statements by [the plaintiff] that someone should
shoot up this school or I should just shoot up this
school. [The plaintiff] was always talking about guns and
ammunition and greets everyone by pointing at them with his
hand in the shape of a gun. This student reported that [the
plaintiff] had said to him that he was [the plaintiffs]
number one target, number one on my list. [The plaintiff]
brags constantly about his guns and ammunition, shows off
pictures and boasts about wanting to bring a gun to school.
This student described these statements by [the plaintiff] as
made jokingly and that the group in which they hung around
dismissed what he said as a joke.
"On the same day, the campus police reinterviewed the
complainant, who repeated his allegations of September 17.
Although [the complainant], too, described [the plaintiffs]
statements as having been made jokingly, he was alarmed
by them, had started avoiding [the plaintiff], left the
student center when [the plaintiff] arrive[d] and was afraid
for everyones safety.
"On September 22, the campus police interviewed a third
student who related that he had heard [the plaintiff] during
the preceding week state something like "might as well
shoot up the place." While this student described [the
plaintiffs] statement as having been made nonchalantly, he
was concerned about the context [332 Conn. 564] of [the
plaintiffs] exclamation because [the plaintiff] had been
upset about something when he made it.
"The campus police interviewed [the plaintiff] on
September 22, 2015, as well. While he acknowledged talking
about guns a lot, he denied ever saying anything about
shooting up the school, stating that he knows better than to
mention anything like that. He attributed the complaints
against him to his position on gun rights.
"After interviewing [the plaintiff], the campus police
called two of the persons they had previously interviewed and
inquired why they had not contacted police upon hearing [the
plaintiffs] alleged remarks about shooting up the school.
One said he had been told by others who heard the remark to
take it as a joke and ignore [the plaintiff]; the other
stated that [he] didnt take it seriously but ... was kind
a detective with the campus police, participated in this
investigation. At its conclusion, on September 22, he applied
for an arrest warrant charging [the plaintiff] with the crime
of threatening in the second degree, in violation of General
Statutes § 53a-62. The states attorney declined the
application, informing ...