Hey Lady Gaga, Anti-Bullying Legislation Won’t Solve Everything

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By now nearly everyone in the country has heard of the heartbreaking death of Jamey Rodemeyer, who took his own life after being bullied relentlessly. Lady Gaga, who was a personal idol of Jamey’s, seemed especially moved by the tragedy and has been calling for a new law to make bullying illegal. While I believe Gaga’s heart is in the right place, I think she is totally wrong. Reactionary legislation won’t solve the problem and it might create some new ones.

It is natural to feel outraged at the many young lives lost to bullying and the countless other young people who suffer at the hands of bullies everyday and to look for a quick, one step solution to stop the torment. But, we already have laws that can be used to prosecute the most relentless and harmful bullies. In fact, authorities are looking into whether or not to file charges against some of Jamey’s attackers. Nearly everyone will agree that violence and threats of violence are not acceptable. The law also agrees and will prosecute for those actions. And, beating someone up because they are gay–or you just think they are–is a hate crime whether it occurs in a bar or a school yard. So long as enough proof exists — and the jury isn’t completely prejudiced — bullies already go to jail for causing harm to their victims.

So what, exactly, would Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying legislation do?

If she is suggesting we should be in the business of policing children’s words and doling out legal penalties for infringement, she is treading on some dangerous and unconstitutional ground. The most obvious argument against this sort of legislation would be that free speech is a constitutionally guaranteed right and any attempts by the government to criminalize even the nastiest and most vicious comments could easily spiral out of control. However, there are more nuanced arguments to make here. A lot of school kids learn about Tinkerv. DesMoines sometime in middle school. For those of us who are a little rusty on grade school history here’s the nutshell verdict:

It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.

That’s what we all remember anyway, but what we forget is maybe even more relevant when we talk about anti-bullying legislation. The Court stressed that these rights were only in place so long as they were not disruptive to the school environment. It’s why teachers can give kids detention for cursing, but a policeman can’t arrest you for dropping the f-bomb on the subway, even if you do it within hearing range of a priest, a rabbi and a pack of four year olds — and it’s why schools already have all the authority they need to stop verbal bullying. Unless Lady Gaga really thinks that jail time is the way to stop verbally abusive bullies — and based on her tweets it kinda seems like she might — this would be symbolic nonsense that grants a power schools already have.

What I find even more alarming than the potential for the enactment of some reactionary and highly unconstitutional law is how  it derails and misdirects the conversation we should be having. Bullying is a legitimate problem and with new technology, most of which didn’t exist when we were kids, the tormenting can reach all the way into the traditional safe haven of the bullied: their homes.

Schools all across the country are dropping the ball when it comes to protecting kids. In some cases it appears that authority figures just look at bullying as another rite of childhood and ignore it, especially when they tend to “morally” agree with the bully like in cases of harassment over sexuality and gender expression. Reports have circulated in Jamey’s case that a counselor encouraged him to be less open about his sexuality to avoid attracting the notice of his bullies and a recent NEA survey found that school authorities are “least comfortable intervening in bullying situations related to sexual orientation and gender issues.” In that same study, teachers and administrators indicate that they are unsure of how to deal with cyberbullying, especially since it occurs outside of school time and off school property. As a result too many teachers and administrators decline to get involved instead allowing bullying to continue unchecked.

The responsibility for addressing this problem rests firmly on the shoulders of the authority figures in every student’s life: school administrators, teachers, and parents. Schools should make it clear that teachers and administrators are expected to intervene in every instance of bullying. Schools also need to lay out a clear definition of what bullying means and make sure that each child in the school is aware of the penalties for harassing another child. Parents can’t be let off the hook, because it is their ultimate responsibility to make sure their children are engaging in appropriate online behavior. Schools should make sure parents know that their children’s actions online will result in discipline at school if it effects the learning experience of another child. In addition, it would be nice to see computer savvy teachers volunteering to help teach parents who are less adept how to monitor their kids behavior.

Looking towards government legislation to solve the problem could actually let these adults cede their responsibility to that of an unseen authority — and at a time when they need to acknowledge their importance in this fight.

(photo: WENN)