Stop Making Laws Named After People Who Die

January 7, 2011

Civil rights lawyer and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education co-founder Harvey Silverglate (Reason archive here) has a great piece up at Forbes about still another legislative attempt to restrict speech in the name of protecting students. Excerpt:

Few American institutions best the Congress in the destructive practice of turning a human tragedy into an assault on liberty. Exhibit A is the ongoing effort to ratchet up anti-bullying measures on campus—with potentially dire consequences for campus free speech. [...]

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) and Rep. Rush Holt (D., N.J.) have authored a bill—dubbed "The Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act"—that aims to prevent future incidents of collegiate "bullying" by dramatically expanding the scope of existing anti-harassment regulations. First introduced in November during the last Congress’ lame-duck session, Representative Holt stated this week that the bill will be reintroduced in the new Congress.

Even if well-intentioned, this proposed legislation is deeply flawed: Its restrictions are redundant, frustratingly vague, and dangerously broad. If enacted, the law would further erode college students’ speech rights, a foundational tenet of liberal education.

The supreme irony is that, under state and federal laws, genuine bullying is already a violation. The extreme conduct that precipitated Clementi’s suicide—broadcasting a fellow student’s private sexual encounters—is a felony in New Jersey, as in many other states. Both students, one of whom was Clementi’s roommate, now face state charges of felonious invasion of privacy. [...]

[T]his bill would replace a comparatively precise definition of harassment with a vague one, inviting punishment of speech protected by the First Amendment. Since most students would not risk their college careers, much less their freedom, on the altar of free expression, they will inevitably avoid hot button and taboo subjects during the very years when students’ urge to explore the world of ideas is at its apex. [...]

FIRE has learned in its decade of experience that charges of "harassment" are already easily the most abused tool to punish speech on campus. This occurs even under the current, considerably narrower definitions than those contained in the proposed legislation.

Link via Silverglate’s partner in freedom, Greg Lukianoff, who wrote for Reason in February 2010 about how "P.C. Never Died."

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Cases: Federal Anti-Harassment Bill Threatens First Amendment Rights on Campus