Is Joking in a Graduation Speech Now Bullying in New Jersey?

By July 3, 2012

FIRE has long warned of the dangers of increasing administrative power and burgeoning speech regulations. Time and time again, we have seen how college administrators use their positions and restrictive policies to punish speech they dislike—all too often, speech that is critical of those in power. Hayden Barnes’ experience at Valdosta State University is perhaps the most extreme example of just how far university administrators will go to silence those who challenge an administration and criticize its actions. Now, we have news out of New Jersey that confirms this sad fact yet again-news that is particularly worrying in light of the state’s new anti-bullying legislation.

In a truly ridiculous example of administrative overreach, officials at Middletown High School South in Middletown, New Jersey, withheld diplomas from seniors Eric Dominach and Mike Sebastiano following their commencement address to this year’s graduating class, claiming that their speech might have violated anti-bullying guidelines. What, you might ask, could have possibly crossed such lines? During their speech, Dominach and Sebastiano joked about the school district and fellow classmates. Some of these comments included a joke about the number of vice principals at the school and a satirical complaint about failing to be accepted to the National Honor Society. According to Middletown Superintendent William George: "That warranted an investigation to make sure nobody was victimized."

One need only watch video from the address to see how absurd this claim is. Audience members laugh throughout, and Dominach and Sebastiano deliver their lines with obvious good nature and affection for their classmates and their school. Rather than enjoy the speech as a funny way to ring out four years of high school, administrators treated the students’ joking as a punishable offense under the state’s bullying laws, initiated an investigation, and interviewed students and staff to determine whether they felt bullied despite the fact no complaints were made. Fortunately, following a social media push and protests from the community, the district backed down.

Sadly, this ridiculous story is sure to be one of many. Given New Jersey’s recently passed Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, administrators at schools across the state have even more power to police expression and punish speech they dislike. FIRE’s Will Creeley, quoted in news reports on the Middletown case, has covered these concerns in depth on The Torch, pointing out that the law is "both impermissibly vague and startlingly broad." This problematic law has empowered officials like the Middletown administrators to abuse their positions to an even greater extent by citing "bullying" concerns as an excuse to clamp down on protected expression. Most importantly, these threats apply not only to high schools, but also to colleges and universities across New Jersey, as the law fails to acknowledge the expressive rights to which college students are entitled.  

So, while we are pleased that this absurd case was happily resolved (setting aside the totally unnecessary anxiety and embarrassment Dominach and Sebastiano were forced to endure), FIRE also knows that the fallout from the New Jersey law will continue to put free expression, even expression as simple as a joke, at risk.