Why A New Federal Harassment Law Is A Bad Idea
Azhar Majeed writes for FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, defending free speech rights for all on campuses) that Senator Frank Lautenberg is trying to enact a new law against harassment and cyberbullying on campus. Problem is, it could do damage to free speech rights on campus.
Plus, Debra J. Saunders writes for SFGate that Rutgers, where Tyler Clementi recently killed himself after being videotaped being sexual with another guy, already has such a policy in place -- with offenses potentially leading to expulsion:
The list includes "intentionally or recklessly endangering the welfare of any individual" - but more to the point, "making or attempting to make an audio or video recording of any person(s) on University premises in bathrooms, showers, bedrooms, or other premises where there is an expectation of privacy with respect to nudity and/or sexual activity." Under "prohibited conduct," Rutgers lists "cyberbullying."
"I was a little puzzled" by the Lautenberg press release, Robert L. Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), told me. "As terrible as the Tyler Clementi case was - and it was - it was already forbidden by harassment policies that every university in America has on the books."
And: "You don't need a new law to know that that's illegal." In fact, New Jersey prosecutors have charged two students with two counts each of invasion of privacy.
Shibley is concerned, and rightly so, that a new law would "attempt to ban speech that is protected by the First Amendment." Wouldn't be the first time a student code of conduct was used to stifle politically incorrect speech. In 2007, a San Francisco State student board filed a complaint against conservative students who held an "anti-terrorism rally" at which they stepped on Hamas and Hezbollah flags because they exhibited "hateful religious intolerance."
When I mentioned that Rutgers already has the policies Lautenberg advocated, spokeswoman Gail Ribas responded, "It would be a national law."
No, it would be a national imposition. It would be another feel-good bill that a headline-happy senator offered without appearing to have asked himself if the law is redundant, necessary or likely to help. Like so much that comes out of Washington these days, it would be clutter.