Once upon a time, bullies pinned you against your locker and stole your lunch money. Now they drive you to suicide. That's why schools and workplaces are experiencing a bullying crisis, and why something must be done.
Technology has escalated the problem. The case of Phoebe Prince, the Massachusetts teen who was literally harassed to death by Facebook postings, grabbed headlines all last spring. In the fall, a Rutgers University freshman named Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge after clandestine video of a makeout session featuring himself with another guy was live-streamed over the internet. Tyler's suicide rounded off a grim quartet including that of Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, and Billy Lucas, all occurring in the back-to-school month of September and all involving students with homosexual leanings-a significant subset of harassment victims.
Whether virtual and actual bullying is really a "crisis" is beside the point; the response has followed standard operating procedure for crisis management. First, the observance of several cases in a relatively brief period of time that can be grouped into the word epidemic. Then the Newsweek cover stories, rife with speculation about probable causes. Third, another rash of incidents that may or may not be copy-cat cases. Fourth, the organization (with acronym) and the Facebook page. Fifth, the cottage industry peddling consultants and curriculum guides. Sixth, the local ordinances and/or protocols. And finally, the legislation.
Several local school districts have implemented anti-bullying guidelines and some states have passed legislation. But the cycle would not be complete without a federal law, and one lurks in the wings: The Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, sponsored by Rush Holt, D-N.J., in the House and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., in the Senate. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reports that there are already laws against harassment, which the Clementi Act would actually weaken. In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999), the Supreme Court ruled that student-on-student harassment must be, among other things, objectively offensive-so severe that reasonable observers would agree about the threat to a victim's physical or mental well-being.
The Clementi Act removes any requirement of objectivity and defines harassment as any action, anywhere (not just on campus) that "limits" a student's educational opportunity or creates "a hostile or abusive educational environment." Who determines this? The bill doesn't specify but offers grants for universities to set up their own policing policies, which in time will include self-appointed watchdogs over individual conscience-who invariably become bullies themselves.
The bill has only been referred to committee and may not pass into law. Even if passed, the opportunities for First Amendment violations are so rich it may be declared unconstitutional after wreaking havoc on campuses across America. If history is any guide, the current "crisis" will pass and educators will become incensed over another threat to educational well-being, but in the meantime the definition of bullying will become so broad and muddled that any adverse move is likely to come under that heading.
In Hollywood, it already has. The Gay-Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has been on a rampage against perceived anti-gay slurs in movies and television shows, which (it claims) amount to bullying. But GLAAD's in-your-face tactics are as obnoxious as any locker-room towel-snapper's.
Being "anti-bully" makes as little practical sense as being anti-war: Who is not opposed to these obvious evils? As with human transactions generally, it's complicated. Most of us have been bullied, in some sense. And most of us have bullied, or been complicit in it. Bullying involves ordinary cruelty, status-seeking, self-doubt, insecurity, and imposing one's will on another-it is not due to a "climate" but to individual sin.
Anti-bully legislation like the Clementi Act is a blanket thrown over the problem, hoping to smother it. It's more likely to smother (under the guise of perceived "offensiveness") free expression, personal conviction, and any appeal to objectivity, including biblical standards. What crawls out from under the blanket is a whole new crop of bullies, intent on imposing their will.
Email Janie B. Cheaney