Jan. 6th, 2012

fidesquaerens: (politics)
The Tennessee state legislature is currently considering a bill defining just what counts as bullying. I’m far from a legal scholar, but as best I can read the summary (linked above), the bill would say that if someone causes harm to a student or his property; sets up a situation where it is reasonably likely he will suffer that same kind of harm; or creates a hostile environment, that’s bullying.

I’m not crazy about the formulation because it leaves out the psychological component (would we be content to tell an adult abuse survivor that he needed bruises and broken bones or it wasn’t really abuse?), and also because it doesn’t really spell out what it means to reasonably put someone in harm (does bullying someone to the point of suicide, if you knew he was psychologically at risk, count?). But those issues aside, it’s not a bill that I would get particularly upset about. At least it’s addressing this as an issue, which is a good thing.

This bill is not new. (It was first introduced back last February.) But in the wake of gay TN teen Jacob Rogers’ suicide, it’s getting a lot of press. The summary of the bill explains that ”creating a hostile educational environment” would not include discomfort or unpleasantness that can accompany the expression of a viewpoint or belief that is unpopular”, and furthermore that committees trying to address school bullying ”may not include materials or training that explicitly or implicitly promote a political agenda”. These two points together has several liberals – not just in Tennessee but in the blogosphere generally – quite upset.

Wendy Kaminer shot back, essentially arguing that liberals should be for “loop holes” that allow people to express unpopular ideas, which is how she reads this bill. She admits that she has problems with the second bit quoted above, but that she thinks the wholesale condemnation goes too far. Because, you know, expressing any opinion is a good thing, and it’s the kind of thing First Amendment advocates (which most liberals are) should be all for.

As I said above, I’m not a legal scholar. I can’t talk about what exactly the First Amendment protects legally. But this whole exchange got me thinking about the meaning of speech, why it’s good and whether bullying falls under that rubric. It really doesn’t, for a simple reason: Free Speech is supposed to be about the exchange of ideas, even unpopular ones. As hard as it to swallow something like Westboro Baptist’s shenanigans, Americans as a society have decided we’re best served knowing that all of those crazy ideas are out in the open for anyone to see and judge for themselves whether they’re crazy or not.

When confronted with the aforementioned “church,” I sometimes am not so sure about that decision(!), but it doesn’t really matter here. Because bullying is not an exchange of ideas. It’s more akin to abuse, either emotional (if no assault is involved) or physical. And yes, sometimes it’s based on an idea like homosexuality is wrong, but it’s played out as a persistent set of insults and degredations intended not to convey information but to beat the kid down.

Moreover, these are kids that are legally required to be at some school, and if their parents aren’t any more supportive of their homosexuality than their classmates are (which, you know, isn’t outside the realm of possibility given the region of the country this law affects), it’s unlikely they’re willing to homeschool or shell out the dollars/commute for a more supportive school. If someone has to go somewhere then he is not consenting to a conversation anyway. Even if there were ideas being traded, he doesn’t want to trade ideas back. And so the value enshrined in the First Amendment – that the free trade of ideas is a good thing – just doesn’t apply here.

Sometimes I wish people would keep this distinction in mind when talking about free speech. Legally, it may not be possible to distinguish the two types of speech, but morally, philosophically, we can. Ideas are good, and we shouldn’t try to keep them from being shared. But bullying, verbal abuse of an adult, and other such activities just aren’t that kind of speech.

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Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.

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