Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

What is “Disturbing”?

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In the wake of the recent Virginia Tech tragedy, it was revealed that Cho, the gunman, had written several essays in his English class that were perceived by his professor as “disturbing.” Even though I am aware of the gist of Cho’s writings, I haven’t read them in full, so I have no way of judging what exactly qualifies as “disturbing,” although, as a professor, I’d sure like to know. Apparently, I am not the only person who is confused by what this means.

For example, this week, high-school senior Allen Lee wrote an essay for an assignment that was so disturbing to his teacher, school administrators and police that he was charged with disorderly conduct, said officials. Lee, 18, is a straight-A student at Cary-Grove High School in Cary, Illinois, who had never had any disciplinary problems nor had he ever been in trouble with the police. But despite these factors, he was arrested Tuesday near his home and charged with a misdemeanor for his essay that police described as violently disturbing but not directed toward any specific person or location.

Cary Police Chief Ron Delelio said the charge against Lee was appropriate even though the essay was not published or posted for public viewing. Disorderly conduct, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine, is often filed for such pranks as pulling a fire alarm or dialing 911, he said. But it can also apply when someone’s writings disturb an individual, Delelio said.


Some legal experts admitted that the disorderly conduct charge against Lee is troubling because it is due to an essay that even police admit contained no direct threats against anyone at the school. If that is the case, then what exactly constitutes a “disturbing essay”? I am sure that there are plenty of professors and teachers out there who would like to know, who need to know this.

Of course, Lee’s essay is not available on the web or anywhere else [now it is], so it is impossible to determine what was so “disturbing” about it. But what is a “disturbing essay” if it doesn’t contain direct threats against anyone? I am sure that plenty of people write “disturbing” (bizare, weird, out-of-the-ordinary) things at some point in their lives .. should they all be charged with disorderly conduct? Or maybe there can be a whole new legal category for such misbehavior; disorderly expression or maybe disorderly writing? And, if so, what should the penalty be for disorderly writing? Taking away the offender’s computer and confiscating his or her pencils and paper? A monetary fine? Or .. dare I say it .. jail time?

Cited story.

Some details on Lee wrote.


  1. #1 Tyler DiPietro
    April 27, 2007

    This is exactly what I feared would happen after the V-Tech shooting. The same thing happened to me after Columbine. People were shaken up, so the rumor mill got going and by the end of the day, my telling one annoying classmate to “leave me to fuck alone” turned into three separate kids I didn’t even really know hearing that I threatened to kill them.

    But this is even worse. “Disturbing” is such a subjective perception that the accusation is just arbitrary. And it leads to so many false positives that can make their victims lives a living hell (or close to it). I did have some writings of mine held up in my sophomore year high school English class because of such a thing. But I was referred to a social worker, no arrested by the cops and charged with anything. Maybe if I had done so after V-Tech, the outcome would have been different.

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    April 27, 2007

    And, if so, what should the penalty be for disorderly writing?

    I was always told to write it again, but legibly.

    Oh well, it’s not as if you have any laws permitting freedom of expression, is it?


  3. #3 Rob Knop
    April 27, 2007

    Sheesh a reesh. So much for frikkin’ freedom of speech.


  4. #4 Diane in Ohio
    April 27, 2007

    Writings,poems,song lyrics,graffiti,as such, can be offensive. Creating situations can be offensive,as in Ohio, one of 5 ways to be citationed for the same charge: Disorderly Conduct. Fear is a terrible thing and I’m afraid alot of peoples’ fear will bring alot of paperwork for the police & sheriffs’ office. Time will tell if all calms down but I’m skeptical it may not.

  5. #5 Not Bob
    April 27, 2007

    It is very disturbing that a school teacher would turn a student over to police over a creative writing assignment.
    There are several more sane reactions which come to mind:
    talking to the student’s parents, counseling, or even a psychological evaluation — but certainly not law enforcement!

    This is a free country??

    The teacher should be ashamed of over-reacting like this.
    And in my opinion the teacher should be disciplined.

  6. #6 blf
    April 27, 2007

    One of the writing assignments I had back in high school (about the time a monkey’s sidekick was USAian president), was to write an essay consisting only of two-word sentences: A noun and a verb.

    My particular essay was about a riot. I cannot now recall if anyone died, but people were definitely hurt. The setting was (near) the school. And the cause was a lack of suitable words. There was, however, no direct threats, nor was anyone or anything named (except, perhaps, the school).

    Nonetheless, it could clearly be considered a “disturbing essay”, having violence, irrational reasoning, clearly illegal and unacceptable behaviours, and obviously referring to the both the school and the assignment (and hence, by implication, to the teacher).

    I wasn’t reported to the police, nor anything like that. Instead, I got an A, with only one comment: One of my sentences didn’t use a proper verb.

    Whilst we don’t know what was written here, presuming the student wasn’t making actual threats, reporting to the police does appear to be an extreme action–a disturbing action. Contacting other professionals at the school might be sensible (again, without knowing just what was written, it’s very hard to say). But the police? (Who then arrested the student?–albeit, given there was a complaint/report, the actual arrest might have been the “safe” thing for the responding officers to do?)


    The Guardian recently ran a very thought-provoking essay on these sorts of actions: Fascist America, in 10 easy steps.

  7. #7 Diane in Ohio
    April 27, 2007

    I found this,(you may have to register to see this article.): Teen’s essay
    Editor’s note and language advisory: Below is what Cary-Grove High School student Allen Lee says he wrote, according to his lawyer. The essay contains language some readers may find offensive.

    Published April 27, 2007
    Blood sex and Booze. Drugs Drugs Drugs are fun. Stab, Stab, Stab, S…t…a…b…, poke. “So I had this dream last night where I went into a building, pulled out two P90s and started shooting everyone…, then had sex with the dead bodies. Well, not really, but it would be funny if I did.” Umm, yeah, what to wright about…… I’m leaving to join the Marines and I really don’t give a (obscenity) about my academics, so why does the only class that’s complete Bull Shit, happen to be the only required class…enough said. The model citizen would stay around to vote in new board member to change the 4 years of English policy, but no one really stays around to vote for that kind of local crap, so whoever gets there name on the Ballet with a pretty face gets to do what the (obscenity) ever they want with local ordinance. A person is smart, but people are dumb selfish animals. We can’t make rules for ourselves so we vote others to do it for us, but we can’t even do that right, I meen seriously, Bush for President? And our other option was John Kerry who claimed to parktake in Vietnam Special Forces missions that haven’t been declassified….(obscenity) Bull Shit. So Power Flower Super Mario. Pudge, hook, rot, dismember “Fresh Meat.” Mostly new/young teachers are laid back, and cooperative with students as feedback and input into the curriculum and atmosphere. My current English teacher is a control freak intent on setting a gap between herself and her students like a 63 year old white male fortune 500 company CEO, and a illegal immigrant. If CG was a private catholic school, I could understand, but wtf is her problem. And baking brownies and rice crispies does not make up for it, way to try and justify yourself as a good teacher while underhandedly looking for complements on your cooking. No quarrel on you qualifications as a writer, but as a teacher, don’t be surprised on inspiring the first cg shooting.

    (The following is Lee’s explanation of the essay above, given to the media by his lawyer.)
    Authors Note: This production of writing is done in the most accurate manner I can depict of the original writing. Grammar and spelling mistakes are included at the best accuracy possible. The first phrase in questions is in fact a Green Day song. The second reference to drugs is in relation to the schools history of drug problems. I am personally clean of all controlled substances. The statement in quotes is done so as a non personal statement as I would have done in reference to a character for a story. The reference to the gun P90 is from a video game, combined with a reference to necrophilia as a comment regarding a seriously messed up situation. A situation such as the rape of villagers during a raid by U.S. troops in Vietnam. I really do not care too much about by continuing academia as in relation to grades. I do however believe on continuing my personal education, and I am actually still working for my classes. My views on the graduation requirements explain themselves. The reference to Mario and Pudge( a DOTA character) are completely random as is this essay. The reference to a person being smart and people being dumb is based on a quote from “Men in Black.” I generally do believe the public opinion is best. The rest of the essay is rather self explanatory, the main statement in question I have already released a comment online about. I request that all information I have released is read together, and nothing given separately or as an excerpt as the administration has seen fit to do.

    On an additional note, I have completed the MEPS (Military Entry Processing Station) examinations, and yes a psychiatric evaluation is included in the process. If I’m qualified to defend the country, I believe I’m qualified to attend school.

    Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune,1,6366371.story?coll=chi-news-hed&ctrack=2&cset=true

  8. #8 blf
    April 27, 2007

    Nuts. Just noticed the hyperlink to The Guardian‘s essay (“Fascist America, in 10 easy steps”) in my previous comment is wonky. Try again, the URL is:,,2064157,00.html

  9. #9 David Harmon`
    April 27, 2007

    The basic problem is with over-literal “guardians” who can’t grasp the difference between thought and deed. By their primitive (infantile) reasoning, If something makes them feel bad, well then it must be bad, and if anybody produces anything bad, they must be bad. And “bad things” have to be stamped out right away, they’ll escape and take over the world!


  10. #10 Rebecca
    April 28, 2007

    Roger Shattuck explores the idea of whether there are some ideas so vile that they shouldn’t be written about in his very interesting book, “Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography”. You can find it at Very much worth reading!

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