New Jersey Officials Use Anti-Bullying Law To Suppress Speech

Yet another pack of school officials has discovered that the current panic over "bullying" provides a handy pretext for punishing mouthy students who irritate them. In Middletown, New Jersey — hometown of our own Nick Gillespie — graduating Middletown High School South senior class presidents Eric Dominach and Mike Sebastiano were denied their diplomas and warned that some mild chop-busting in their graduation speech may have violated anti-bullying guidelines and warranted a formal investigation. The two are raising a ruckus and demanding apologies, but they're not the only people to be bullied by anti-bullying laws.

From the Asbury Park Press:

Dominach and Sebastiano say Principal Patrick Rinella asked them before graduation to delete parts of the speech, including a reference to the school’s “50 other vice principals’’ — a joke about the school having multiple vice principals. The seniors also were asked to delete a gibe about the difficulty they had trying to get into the National Honor Society, despite stellar grades.

But the teens restored those and other comments at the last minute and kept in jokes about classmates they say the district had never attempted to censor. The speech also included a comment about a fellow student who taught them how to fight and another who “never shut up.” That student, they say, had been voted “Most Talkative” in school-sanctioned class elections.

When Dominach and Sebastiano went to the high school to pick up their diplomas June 18 with the rest of their classmates, they were told the documents would be withheld. The next day the families were told all students and staff named would be interviewed to determine whether they felt bullied, and whether charges might be filed, the families said, though no one had filed a complaint.

“Our speech didn’t justify that outcome. We knew our speech didn’t offend anyone,” Sebastiano said. “We thought it was unfair.”

“I was very surprised,” said Eric Dominach, an honor student who will major in engineering at Rutgers University in fall. “We wanted the speech to leave a memorable mark on our four years and just bring enjoyment to all the students who graduated. … (District officials) just didn’t want it to be funny, I guess, or for us to state obvious facts about our school and the things we had to go through.”

The district held the diplomas until June 20, just before a Board of Education meeting at which parents and students had been planning to protest.

New Jersey's recently adopted anti-bullying law (summarized here) had already drawn the ire of free-speech advocates. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education noted that:

by prohibiting speech that "has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students" in such a way as to "substantially disrupt[] or interfere[] with the orderly operation of the institution," New Jersey has in effect sanctioned the "heckler's veto." If the College Republicans were to stage a disruptive sit-in because the College Democrats had harshly criticized them for being Republicans, New Jersey's law would subject the Democrats to punishment for the Republicans' disruption. In other words, New Jersey has incentivized overreaction to any perceived insult, since the "victim's" disruption of the orderly operation of the school automatically shifts the blame to the speaker.

What FIRE didn't say is that the law also incentivizes speech-averse officials to go hunting for the hecklers' veto, by seeking out somebody — anybody — who can claim to be offended. That's usually not too challenging a task, so it's a minor miracle that Dominach and Sebastiano weren't ultimately confronted with thin-skinned "victims."

New Jersey's law was actually ruled unconstitutional in January — as a violation of state provisions regarding unfunded mandates, rather than free speech protections. Lawmakers promptly responded by funding the muzzle-friendly monstrosity. That's a shame, because the state law not only defines a remarkably vague range of speech as harassment and bullying, but it also makes such behavior punishable "whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents," and both "in school and off school premises" meaning it's pretty damned easy to run afoul of the statute, if somebody wants you to.

In using an anti-bullying law as a cudgel against students who direct unwelcome criticism their way, Middletown officials join colleagues elsewhere, including San Francisco. Anti-bullying laws have turned out to be empowering tools for educrats.

But they're really the only ones being empowered. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Reason's Nick Gillespie writes that, while bullying sucks, the modern bullying panic is a load of hysterical crap:

Despite the rare and tragic cases that rightly command our attention and outrage, the data show that things are, in fact, getting better for kids. When it comes to school violence, the numbers are particularly encouraging. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1995 and 2009, the percentage of students who reported "being afraid of attack or harm at school" declined to 4% from 12%. Over the same period, the victimization rate per 1,000 students declined fivefold.

Dominach and Sebastiano appear to be winning their battle in Midletown, since they're now demanding an apology from school officials. But speech-suppressing anti-bullying laws remain in place in New Jersey and elsewhere.

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  • wareagle||

    the pussification of America, sanctioned (if not begun by) the 60s-counter-culture-kids-turned-bureaucrats, continues. Much of this bullying business is directly traceable to schools' zero-common sense policies regarding violence, where someone fighting back is treated as harshly as the instigator.

    The story is just nuclear levels of stupid, even for a bureaucracy. And good for them re: NHS. What a racket it is to get into that.

  • ||

    Yeah and nobody gives a shit about NHS when you apply to college either.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    I had to go through a bunch of ceremony and stuff to get in, then never did another thing with it except put it on my transcript.

  • ||

    War Eagle, out of curiosity, where did you hear that term, "the pussification of America"?

  • wareagle||

    I want to say I came up with it on my own, but that may not be entirely true. Could be that I saw it here or elsewhere and just liked it. Damn. I'm not 100% sure of the origin.

  • ||

    I only ask, because I used it about 10 years ago with a group of friends. It was, to the best of my knowledge, an independent thought, at the time. (Although I might have heard it somewhere and subconsciously repeated it). I've only ever heard it among that group.

    Great minds...

  • ||

    Uh, getting into NHS is a cakewalk if you have the grades and good extracurriculars. Though I also agree that I have no idea what benefit it was to me. I guess my dad being tortured at the induction ceremony by having to watch the NHS adviser's two-hour presentation on his drive though Alaska, complete with slides, did give me some lulz.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I understand there are a lot of people who are too poor to send their kids to private schools, but most Americans really aren't.

    I mean, I'd rather send my kids to a religious school teaching a religion I didn't believe in than subject them to the Church of State, which is what public schools are...

    It's just that in the Church of State, the priests are bureaucrats and they teach you to pray to politicians.

    It's weirder than Scientology. ...and people send their children there?

  • ||

    People will do crazy shit when you distort the market.

  • Ken Shultz||

    It's conditioning.

    The parents were conditioned too.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4dHkSAciJs

  • Ken Shultz||

    Our Obama, who art in Washington, hallowed be thy name.
    Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done
    In New Jersey as it is in heaven.

    Give us this day our free bread.
    And forgive us our debts as we become your debtors.

    Lead us not into capitalism,
    but deliver us from evil.
    For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.

    Amen.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    Maybe I'm being too reasonable, but these kids are 18 years old. If you think they're unruly now, just wait for when they're in college.

  • wareagle||

    I doubt anyone here is going to consider them unruly. They told a few malicious truths, such as someone being named "most talkative" by classmates and pointing out the school's bloated admin staff.

    My guess is the only people "offended" by this were the educrats. No one has a sense of humor anymore, and most things that are truly funny are based on something that is true.

  • Bitter Taxpayer||

    I went to Red Bank Regional. Middletown kids are punks. Always have been. Always will be.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    I think the lesson here is:

    OBEY.

  • ||

    That is one and only lesson public schools teach.

  • ||

    New Jersey's law was actually ruled unconstitutional in January — as a violation of state provisions regarding unfunded mandates, rather than free speech protections. Lawmakers promptly responded by funding the muzzle-friendly monstrosity.

    WHAT. THE. FUCK?!?! Bullshit reasoning from the ACA decision aside, what part of Amendment 1A "Congress (and by extension states, thank you 14th amendment) shall make NO law abridging free speech"? I just don't understand it and I have no idea what to do about it, other than laugh at any similar graduation speeches I hear to encourage the fact that they ARE NOT OFFENSIVE.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    I don't care if they are offensive. That's irrelevant.

  • CE||

    Uh-oh.... pretty soon they'll be accusing us of bullying statists because we always win the arguments with them.

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