FIRE: Anti-bullying law restricts free speech

Congress is considering an anti-bullying bill that “gravely threatens free speech,” argues the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).  The bill is named for Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who killed himself after his sexual encounter with a male student in his dorm room was filmed and put online.

“Tyler Clementi was subjected to an unconscionable violation of privacy, but that conduct was already criminal and prohibited by every college in America,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “For decades, colleges have used vague, broad harassment codes to silence even the most innocuous speech on campus. The proposed law requires universities to police even more student speech under a hopelessly vague standard that will be a disaster for open debate and discourse on campus. And all this in response to student behavior that was already illegal.”

Balancing free-speech rights with the desire to protect students from abuse, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that harassment can be banned only if it is “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.” The bill removes the requirement that the behavior be objectively offensive.

The loss of this crucial “reasonable person” standard means that those most interested in silencing viewpoints they don’t like will effectively determine what speech should be banned from campus. Unconstitutional definitions of “harassment” have already provided the most commonly abused rationale justifying censorship, having been applied to a student magazine at Tufts University that published true if unflattering facts about Islam, a Brandeis professor who used an epithet in order to explain its origins and condemn its use as a slur, and even a student at an Indiana college simply for publicly reading a book.

Clementi’s roommate and an alleged accomplice are facing criminal charges for invasion of privacy.

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