Monday, November 7, 2011

Where Do We Draw The Line: Free Speech vs. Bullying

I have talked about something similar to this before, but this is slightly different and came back to mind when I saw a video by ProfMTH on the subject this morning (wonderful youtuber btw, highly recommended)
Basically, there is some new legislation that has recently passed in Michigan that tries to address the problem of bullying in schools. The question put to ProfMTH is whether or not the fact that a clause has been added to the bill, protecting people holding a strong religious belief to voice said belief without repercussions for doing so, was unconstitutional or not.

While I am sure that ProfMTH knows better than I do when he says that the clause does not, I have to disagree with him regarding the notion that this clause protects free speech. It is a very fine line to draw, but I find it to be necessary: when does free speech become bullying?

The clause is very awkwardly worded:

ProfMTH points out that the clause does not say that the student is allowed to bully based on his or her religious belief, only that they are allowed to state what their belief is, and that this is protected speech. OK, but really? The clause also does not contain a very important HOWEVER if you bully for whatever reason you're screwed, which I believe is the legal term. Why do I think this is important?

If this bill is even needed, it means that the addressing of bullying in schools is severely lacking. Do we really believe that when interpreting this hazily written clause administrators are going to err on the side of being tougher on the bullies, or err on the side of letting them go? Especially if the administrator him/herself holds the same "religious" (translation: anti-gay, possibly anti-muslim) beliefs? My second question is, why is there even a need for such a clause to exist? The first amendmant is there for everyone. If something someone says qualifies as free speech they are protected by it, there is no need to restate people's constitutional rights in every piece of legislation. Why even specify someone's religious beliefs at all? Isn't a student equally allowed to voice their political ideology with the same fervor and still be protected without being accused of bullying someone with an opposing view? What is really needed is a clear definition of when free speech stops being free speech and becomes bullying.

Admittedly I have not read the bill, this next part comes from my own head. I'm sure that the bill must contain some form of a definition of bullying. If it does not, it's an even worse bill than I originally thought. If it does, then it reiterates my point that the clause regarding the protection of someone's religious beliefs is utterly useless, because if what someone says does not qualify as bullying then it doesnt matter what the nature of their statement is, religious or otherwise. Anyway, personally, I think the line can be drawn at a personal attack.

If someone generally states "I think gays go to Hell" that is a general statement. An extremely ignorant one, a stupid one, but a general statement nonetheless and one that is protected speech. If, however, someone repeatedly verbally harasses a person or a few people, says "I think YOU are going to Hell, YOU are a sinner, YOU should just kill yourself" over and over, and you direct that hateful speech at someone you know, repeatedly, that is bullying. At least, that is what I think bullying (verbal bullying of course, physical violence is much easier to define since there is no protection of assault in the constitution) should be defined as.

Where do you draw the line? Where does the law draw the line? Share your thoughts

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