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It’s the standard formula for a Kyleigh’s Law harassment story: Take an ordinary traffic encounter and attribute it, without any real evidence, to the presence of the decals. A few weeks later, Jannicelli was flipping through TV channels and came across Assemblyman Schroeder describing the incident on a local news show.
Beyond creating Facebook groups, which they have done aplenty, the most relevant people here—actual teenagers—have staged rallies at legislators’ offices, written op-ed pieces, and articulated a coherent critique of Kyleigh’s Law that does not necessarily depend on the prospect of sexual predation. But their legitimate grievances tend to be undermined by paranoid adults who give credence to the overwrought notion that psychopaths could be lurking behind any anonymous windshield. In fact, if a teenager is likely to be followed by anyone, it’s a police officer, not some crazed miscreant—and legislators don’t seem to have a problem with that.
Chief Jannicelli says he hasn’t been especially diligent in writing tickets for noncompliance with the decal provision, but it does come in handy on occasion. “I’ve issued one only because the kid was…lazy, I guess is the word,” he reports. “I couldn’t write him a ‘lazy’ ticket.” The kid had left his car parked in a fire zone for a few minutes while he went inside a bagel store—not a terribly egregious violation. As a compromise, Jannicelli wrote the kid up for the lesser offense of failing to display the decals. It’s a mundane story, but illustrates what Kyleigh’s Law actually does in practice: It gives officers greater discretion in monitoring teenage drivers however they see fit. There are no firm data on the rate of noncompliance, but Jannicelli believes it’s quite high. So a citation for lacking proper decals is now available to officers as a “warning” if, say, they don’t like a teenager’s attitude. But you won’t often hear members of the Assembly comment on the wisdom of enhancing police discretion in this way. The critics mostly focus on the specter of lurking perverts.
The Alarmist Impulse
Last November, Michael Patrick Carroll, one of the 13 assemblymen who have reversed their position on Kyleigh’s Law, cast the sole vote against an anti-bullying bill introduced in response to the death of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers freshman who committed suicide after a roommate surreptitiously streamed video of his intimate encounter with another man to online viewers. “Kyleigh would not have been saved by the decals,” Carroll tells me, “and Tyler would not have been saved by an anti-bullying bill.”
His is a lonely voice in New Jersey against legislation named after dead teenagers. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) subsequently proposed the federal Tyler Clementi Anti-Harassment Education Act, which would require all universities receiving federal aid to strengthen their anti-harassment policies. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that defends academic freedom, says the bill would be “a disaster for open debate and discourse on campus,” arguing that its vague and subjective definition of harassment threatens to abridge students’ First Amendment rights.
As legislators gradually express regret for almost unanimously assenting to an ill-considered bill, the decal provision of Kyleigh’s Law may well be repealed. But the underlying impulse that allowed it to pass so briskly through the legislature with negligible dissent is still firmly entrenched, as is the idea that government must express its sympathy with victims of tragedy by cobbling together commemorative legislation. There was an opportunity here to open a dialog on the state’s proper role in regulating teenage behavior; instead, the primary argument against Kyleigh’s Law was based on the same sort of alarmism that led to its passage. That may be enough to kill one bad bill, but it does nothing to address the culpable mind-set. Assemblyman Schroeder is currently cosponsoring legislation that would require life imprisonment for anyone convicted of murdering a child. It’s called Judy and Nikki’s Law.
Michael Tracey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer based in New Jersey. His work has appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, and The Washington Post.