Update on Case of Cross Burnt Into Student’s Arm

Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars. A judge yesterday issued a summary judgment in the anti-defamation claims of John Freshwater, the Mount Vernon School District science teacher who, in December 2007, used a Tesla coil to burn a mark on the arm of a 7th grade student. 

In the spring of 2008, the parents of the student, Zachary Dennis, filed a civil suit against Freshwater and the school district. While the parents could have rightfully pursued the case as one of battery for burning Zachary, they also argue that Freshwater’s actions violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

The case has become a lightning rod for Christian conservatives, who argue that Freshwater’s religious freedom is under attack.

Freshwater has said the case is not about the fact that he used a Tesla coil to raise blisters on students’ arms, something he admits to doing in the classroom for 21 years. Rather, he says it’s about the fact that he’s a creationist and kept a Bible on his desk.

The Dennis family vehemently disagrees. 

In response to the family’s lawsuit, Freshwater filed a counter-claim of anti-defamation against them. (The school is no longer involved in the lawsuit; last summer, it reached a settlement with the Dennis family.)

In issuing summary judgment in Freshwater’s anti-defamation claims, the judge ruled essentially that many of the statements were not made by the plaintiffs and that Freshwater produced no evidence that any of the statements were made with malice. The judge also threw out Freshwater’s claim of emotional distress.

(A summary judgment is basically a ruling without a trial if the court determines that there are no disputed issues of fact.) 

But the Dennis family had also requested summary judgment regarding Establishment Clause violations regarding numerous religious posters and Christian statements in the classroom, which included a Bible on Freshwater’s desk and a box full of Bibles in the room. The judge denied plaintiffs’ motion, saying that there remain issues of fact still in dispute. 

Both sides had requested summary judgment regarding claims of battery. The judge ruled that because the facts remain in dispute, it should be up to a jury to determine.

Brayton sums up the court issues regarding the battery claim:

Ohio law requires an intent to commit harm in order to be battery. The family claims that since Freshwater should have known that the Tesla coil would cause harm, that proves his intent. Freshwater says that since he’d been doing this to students for 21 years and had never had a complaint in the past, he had no intent and truly did not believe it would cause any real harm.   

The trial before a jury will begin May 24.