Anti-bullying bullies attack free speech

A debate on gay adoption in a Wisconsin school newspaper turned into a lesson on the dangers of anti-bullying over-reach, writes Eugene Volokh.

The Shawano High School newspaper decided to run dueling student opinion pieces on whether same-sex couples should be able to adopt children; the student article that answered the question “no” said, among other things, quotes Leviticus 20:13 (“If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them.”). The school district then publicly apologized for the column, as an “[o]ffensive article[] cultivating a negative environment of disrespect,” and said that it is “taking steps to prevent items of this nature from happening in the future.” And in a Fox interview, the school superintendent labeled the column a form of “bullying.”

Public schools can decide to control what’s published in student newspapers, writes Volokh, a law professor.   But labeling a student’s opinion as “bullying” is troubling. Under district policy, “bullying” may lead to “warning, suspension, exclusion, pre-expulsion, expulsion, transfer, remediation, termination, or discharge.”

The Shawano incident shows how easy it is for schools to define “bullying” to include “political advocacy and expression of religious views,” Volokh writes.

Schools and anti-bullying activists have adopted “overbroad definitions of bullying,” argues Hans Bader on Open Market. When “eye-rolling” can be defined as bullying, the First Amendment is in trouble, he writes.

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  1. You can’t have it both ways:

    – ask for an honest, searching debate on the issue


    – slander the opposing side as a bully

  2. Well, the article’s author just found out what it was like to be a Republican running for office.

  3. Richard Nieporent says:

    I believe they fell for the old “Let a hundred flowers blossom” trick.

  4. Hmmm… Although I believe that there is a such thing as effective same-sex parents, it’s difficult to deny someone of the right to state their opinion.

    To me, whether the writing and publishing of that article is a form of bullying is an open question. It could be a form of bullying but it could also not be. In order to give an answer either way, we would need to agree on a definition of “bullying.”

    A bully picks on a specific individual and in some way is more powerful than the specific individual who he/she picks on. The article consists of two columnists who both address the same subject with opposing positions rather than attacking a specific individual. For that reason, I’m inclined to believe that the article was not a form of bullying.

    • If supporting gay adoption – or any other issue – isn’t bullying those who disagree with it, then opposing gay adoption isn’t bullying those who disagree with it. Allowing only one side of an issue to be heard/advertised/supported is the very definition of suppression of free speech.

      • Absolutely right – bullying is an ugly thing but someone would have to explain how calling someone names isn’t protected by the first amendment.

  5. Marktropolis says:

    I’d hardly call invoking a call for the death penalty as mere “eye rolling.” When you’re using Old Testament rules as your reasons – and thereby implying that those who violate those rules should be put to death – you’re skating on thin ice. Bullying by definition is threatening someones physical safety.

    • I’m a Christian, but I believe that when a Christian quotes the Bible to a non-Christian and probably hostile audience, he/she is going to get taken apart, and perhaps deservedly so. I wish the editor or faculty adviser had raised a red flag on the Leviticus quote–using it was pretty much surrendering the debate. Still, Marktropolis, I think you’re being melodramatic, which is unfortunately an effective way to silence people and ideas.

  6. Marktropolis says:

    Oh, and threatening someone’s physical safety does not fall under the category of free speech.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:


    If the article had said something to the effect of, “Of course, I do not advocate that anyone be killed for sexual activity,” would you still consider it bullying?

    BTW: Constitutional law is very clear that “mere advocacy” is protected by the First Amendmant. There has to be “clear and present danger” to fall outside the First Amendment.

    • Roger Sweeny,

      Not at a school, champ. Everything- including 1st amendment- is more limited for children and especially for children at schools. That has been demonstrated by court case after court case. I would definitely say that citing the Bible and emphasizing the death penalty for specific actions can be construed as speech that violates the norms of what I would be comfortable with at a public school.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        You’re right. School officials have much more control over students than other government officials have over adults. If such a debate were taking place out of school, quoting that passage would be protected free speech. In fact, going so far as actually endorsing the execution of anyone who engages in same-gender sex would be protected free speech.

  8. George Larson says:

    I read the article in question no ones physical safety was threatened.

  9. RIchard Aubrey says:

    Depends. It’s kind of “threateningy” or “threateningish” if you don’t like what somebody said and you can con somebody into pretending to be afraid. So what is said doesn’t really matter.
    At all.