The danger of excessive ‘free’ speech: Why Tennessee’s ‘license to bully’ bill must fail

Over the past week, the “license to bully” bill that may be considered by the Tennessee Legislature, has been blowing up in the media. From CNN (where the awesome Michelle Bliss from the Tennessee Equality Project defended the rights of students) to bloggers, newspapers, and magazines, countless people have weighed in with their thoughts about the proposed legislation.

In an article in The Atlantic on Saturday, Wendy Kaminer, a noted libertarian, weighed in on the matter, giving the typical libertarian response regarding protected speech.

To her, anti-bullying laws are a potentially dangerous affront to First Amendment rights, because it would criminalize the religious and moral beliefs of American citizens.

I take issue with Ms. Kaminer’s position in several ways. In her analysis she states that:

You shouldn’t have to study this language (of the Tennessee bill) to recognize that opposing it means supporting infringements on First Amendment rights and punishing students who express religious, philosophical, or political ideas that others find discomforting or unpleasant.

First off, Ms. Kaminer is confusing “religious, philosophical, or political ideas that some may find unpleasant” with harassment. There is a fundamental and clear difference between the two.

An example of this could be found using the African-American community. A pro-life individual could have a political position regarding abortion and its impact upon the African-American community, and that would be protected speech. Yes, labeling a woman’s right to choose as “racial genocide” might be construed as discomforting and unpleasant, but it is just that, political speech that one finds unpleasant. It is not denigrating or harassing a people group because of a characteristic that that group shares.

On the other hand, if that same person started yelling racial slurs at an African-American person, that would cross the line from “discomfort” or “unpleasantness” to actual harassment, because it is now the individual who is being attacked.

Harassment occurs when the bully moves from attacking an “idea” to attacking an individual or a characteristic of that individual. It occurs within our school system when a child is called out, not because of a political position that they hold, but instead because of whom they are, whatever race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or weight they may have.

An another example: Michele Obama has proposed legislation that deals with childhood obesity, by promoting healthy food choices and alternatives to fast food. That is a political position, and a policy that can be debated upon its merits.

Yet, under the proposed legislation in Tennessee, not only would a discussion of the political ramifications of the First Lady’s program be allowed, but an overweight school kid could be bullied for his weight, because the bully could say that the overweight kid is a “glutton” and violating the biblical standards of self-control.

Ms. Kaminer then goes on to assert that the proposed legislation is actually a good thing for LGBT activists and students in Tennessee because it:

“would also protect the rights of gay students to advocate for same-sex marriage, equal employment laws, health care equality, or gay adoptions, among other issues — even if their advocacy is unpopular and considered by some “unpleasant.”

Though Ms. Kaminer may mean well, and her defense of freedom of speech (an essential American right) is admirable; it is unfortunately quite misguided. As shown within the above paragraph, Ms. Kaminer does not understand the difference between advocating for a political position (which, by the way, I do not see as having an relevance in a school system), to harassment.

The former is of course protected by the First Amendment; but for the second, one is hard pressed to find justification for such protections. Instead of having any legitimacy, the allowance of bullying based upon ones “religious, political, or philosophical” belief, has only one purpose — it gives students the right to demean, denigrate, and cause direct pain to countless children within our school system.

And that, my readers, is why Tennessee’s “license to bully” bill MUST fail.

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