NJ’s Governor Christie Signs into Law Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, Carrying Punishments for “Hate Speech”
Event:Last week, Governor Chris Christie signed into law New Jersey’s “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights.”The bill creates a new regime for reporting and monitoring students accused of bullying.
Problem: The bill includes a new category of punishment, not only for physical actions, but for anything that could cause “emotional” harm to another student.This would permit schools to punish children for simply speaking words alone.The standard for evaluating what rises to “emotional harm” is so vague that the application of this law may result in children being bullied or intimidated by teachers or administrators who just don’t like what certain students have to say.
Analysis:In a December 2010 letter, we urged Governor Christie to veto this bill, on the grounds that it arose to the level of “hate speech” legislation which could be used to improperly punish students of faith for expressing their disapproval of homosexual conduct.
New Jersey has on its books a crime of “bias intimidation” (also known as “hate crimes.”)This law increases the penalties for committing crimes of violence or destruction of property due to the race, religion, or sexual orientation of the victim.
The new anti-bullying law takes the protected categories of the “bias intimidation” law into the school context but radically expands the punishments to include simply speaking words that could offend those protected classes of people.
Certainly, teasing, mocking and disparagement can have a corrosive effect on anyone’s self-esteem, especially tender young ones like children.But we question if these new rules are the way to eliminate cruelty in our schools.There is a line between standing up to protect the feelings of a victim, on the one hand, and pointing fingers to assign blame for someone’s problems, on the other.
This past week witnessed a fire-storm of blame following the brutal assassination of a Federal judge, John Roll, and several civilians in Tuscon, Arizona, alongside the wounding of a U.S. Representative, Gabrielle Giffords.Following this despicable crime, otherwise credible figures such as the Tuscon sheriff, several House members, and journalists joined in a chorus of blaming the act of murder on people who engage in political debates for creating a “climate of hatred” which they say contributed to the crime.
There is a deliberate effort at work now to punish people for speaking and illustrating their point of view.
Additionally, as we pointed out to Governor Christie in our letter, one organization went to far as to nearly label half the American public as a “hate group” for simply holding a political view that it didn’t like.The Southern Poverty Law Center last month issued a report classifying some large mainstream national organizations as “hate groups” for their opposition to same-sex marriage.
Taken in context, we have reason to question the motivation of efforts to curtail freedom of speech in the name of “protecting” the feelings of other people.It appears that often the “feelings of others” may be used as a pretense to single out and punish points of view with which the authorities disagree.
Specifically, in the school systems, teachers and administrators should hold it as their professional responsibility to care about the safety, welfare and well-being of all students.Students who get harassed on a continual basis point out a failure on the part of the school staff to care enough to get involved in helping them.But a lack of empathy or courage on the part of the teachers isn’t going to be remedied by giving the school the ability to punish students for name-calling.
Impact:We are disappointed by Governor Christie’s choice to sign this bill into law. As a former prosecutor, the Governor is certainly aware of the risks that come from a vague legal standard and the encroachment of individual liberties.We will continue to monitor Governor Christie’s attention to key matters.
At the same time, we see the shifting focus of public debate towards “civility” as an indication that those wisdom and moral traditions which are cherished by many Americans may in fact become an increasingly relevant and reliable source of guidance for public affairs.
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