Academic journal article Emory Law Journal

Therapeutic Expression

Academic journal article Emory Law Journal

Therapeutic Expression

Article excerpt


"Say what you need to say. Say what you need to say."

-John Mayer, "Say"1

On July 20, 2012, James Holmes entered the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire on a midnight showing of the film The Dark Knight Rises2 Dressed in tactical gear, he set off tear gas grenades and shot at the audience using multiple firearms.3 Twelve people died, and seventy others were injured.4

Prior to the shooting, Holmes sought treatment from psychiatrist Lynne Fenton, who managed the student mental health clinic at the university Holmes had been attending.5 Dr. Fenton testified at Holmes' criminal trial that he disclosed non-specific violent thoughts to her during treatment, but that she was unable to place him under psychiatric hold because he did not identify a direct target.6 Holmes eventually discontinued his sessions with Dr. Fenton when he dropped out of school, saying he was no longer able to afford psychiatric care.7 Hours before the Aurora massacre, Holmes mailed Dr. Fenton a detailed notebook in which he described the theater, his plans to attack it, and his reasons for the shootings.8 He later told another mental health professional that he created the notebook because it was important for people to understand him.9

Several years later, supporters of the far-right political movement, including white nationalists and members of several militias, gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia for a march they named the "Unite the Right" rally.10 The City of Charlottesville initially granted a permit for the rally at a small urban park containing the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, but later attempted to move the rally to a larger, less centrally located park.11 The night before the rally, a federal court in Charlottesville issued a temporary restraining order barring city officials from moving the event and allowing it to go forward in its original location.12

On the morning of the rally, large swaths of Unite the Right participants appeared in military gear and openly carried semiautomatic firearms, shields, and clubs.13 Several incidents of violence against persons of color and counterprotesters were reported.14 By 11:00 a.m., the City of Charlottesville declared a state of emergency and cancelled the event.15 A few short hours later, James Alex Fields, Jr., a Unite the Right supporter, drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring nineteen others.16 Fields was charged with murder, but claimed he was acting in self-defense.17 He was convicted by a state court jury, which recommended a sentence of life in prison.18

While extreme in terms of their violence and risk to human life, these examples highlight the significant, latent connection between thought, speech, violence, and harm. Both Holmes and Fields clearly harbored thoughts of hurting other people, in Holmes's case for months at a minimum before he carried out his deadly attack.19 Both Holmes and Fields engaged in acts of violence that inflicted serious physical harm and death to a multitude of people.20 And both Holmes and Fields appeared to be seeking a speech-related outlet for their ideologies immediately prior to engaging in these behaviors, although neither was fully able to be heard, to completely articulate their perspective, or to avoid violence through psychological therapy. At least to the extent that Holmes worked on his notebook and that Fields participated in the Unite the Right march, they were not actively undertaking physical violence at the time they were engaged in expressive activities. Rather, their expression was either a precursor to violence or a mechanism for delaying violence, or both. This progression of events leaves one to wonder: What if Holmes had been able to share his notebook with Dr. Fenton before he opened fire in the theater? What if Fields had been able to continue marching through Charlottesville with his altright comrades rather than being told to disperse and go home? …

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