Civil Liberties

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.