Bullying has been defined by opportunistic politicians to include a broad range of speech, including core political speech. The latest example is anti-abortion advocacy:
Ontario’s Education Minister has apparently declared that Catholic schools can no longer teach that abortion is wrong.
Laurel Broten, who serves under Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty, said Wednesday that Catholic schools are barred from teaching this core moral belief because Bill 13, the government’s controversial “anti-bullying” law, prohibits “misogyny.”
“Taking away a woman’s right to choose could arguably be considered one of the most misogynistic actions that one could take,” she told the Canadian Press. “I don’t think there is a conflict between choosing Catholic education for your children and supporting a woman’s right to choose.”
“We do not allow and we’re very clear with the passage of Bill 13 that Catholic teachings cannot be taught in our schools that violates human rights and which brings a lack of acceptance to participation in schools,” she said. …
Asked for clarification she said again: “Bill 13 has in it a clear indication of ensuring that our schools are safe, accepting places for all our students. That includes of LGBTQ students. That includes young girls in our school. Bill 13 is about tackling misogyny, taking away a woman’s right to choose could arguably be one of the most misogynistic actions that one could take.”
Earlier, a U.S. school district superintendent labeled a column in a school newspaper that criticized homosexuality as “bullying,” which is an offense punishable by penalties up to expulsion in that school district. The Shawano High School newspaper had run dueling student opinion pieces on whether same-sex couples should be able to adopt children; the student article that was labeled as “bullying” answered the question “no.” It is strange to claim that a viewpoint in a student newspaper is “bullying.” If a school doesn’t want that kind of debate in its own newspaper, it shouldn’t ask for it; it has no right to open the subject for debate, and then punish a hapless person for participating in it. Opposition to homosexuality is protected by the First Amendment. A conservative Christian who thought that homosexuality was immoral successfully challenged a school “harassment” code that punished students with such viewpoints in Saxe v. State College Area School District (2001), a case in which a federal appeals court ruled that there is no “harassment” exception to the First Amendment for speech which offends members of minority groups. Speech cannot be banned simply by labeling it as violence, either: for example, in Bauer v. Sampson, another federal appeals court ruled that a campus newspaper’s depiction of a college official’s imaginary death was protected by the First Amendment, even though the college declared it a violation of its policy against “workplace violence.”
The current panic over bullying is leading to attacks on free speech, political debate, and free association in the schools; political pandering; dishonest stretching of existing federal laws by federal officials; and violations of basic principles of federalism.
Schools and anti-bullying activists have adopted incredibly over-broad definitions of bullying. The anti-bullying website NoBully.com, and schools like Fox Hill and Alvarado Elementary, define even “eye rolling” and other expressions of displeasure or hostility as bullying, even though doing so raises First Amendment problems.
The Obama administration claims bullying is an “epidemic” and a “pandemic.” But in reality, bullying and violence have steadily gone down in the nation’s schools, as even studies funded by the Justice Department have shown. The administration’s anti-bullying website defines exercises of free speech and association such as “spreading rumors” or “excluding someone from a group” as being “bullying,” and it says that “examples of cyberbullying include mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles.”
The U.S. Senate passed restrictions on speech aimed at cyberbullying and “harassment” that UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh concluded violate the First Amendment, including an expansion of “stalking” provisions that were used unsuccessfully to prosecute a Twitter user who repeatedly criticized a religious leader. These provisions are contained in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2011, in a version of the bill that has passed the Senate but not the House. (I discuss other problems with that bill at this link.)
The Obama administration has sought to define “bullying” and “cyberbullying” to include constitutionally protected speech, defining it broadly enough to include harsh criticism of politicians, as I explained here. It also has sought to redefine various sorts of real or perceived “bullying” (and even protected speech) as a civil rights violation prohibited by the civil-rights statutes administered by the Department of Education, where I used to work.