Michigan is in the national news this week because those really mean Republicans apparently passed a law that gives kids a “license to bully” other kids. Or something. Ask ABC News:
LGBT advocates and the father of the boy for whom a Michigan anti-bullying law is named are slamming the state senate, claiming a last-minute First Amendment tweak gives "a major green light" to school bullies.
I have no idea what this law will do, but I will tell you what it does not do: It does not give “a major green light” to school bullies. What happened to this gentleman’s son is absolutely tragic; something no parent should endure. But that tragedy did not make him an expert in legislative interpretation. And it did not give the media a license to run wild with this story. This bill does not “protect religious tormenters.” It does not give anybody a “license to bully.” It does not “allow bullying.” So stop saying that.
This bill is nothing more than a horribly-drafted abomination of an attempt to Dooooooooooooo Something about things politicians just can’t do that much about. Seriously: try to read the bill. And if you do read the actual bill – instead of some half-baked screed on Daily Kos or whatever – you’ll realize what this bill actually does prohibit and allow: nothing. This bill that allegedly sends kids a “frightening message that it’s ok to pick on somebody who doesn’t share your religious views” does absolutely no such thing. It does not prohibit anything. It doesn’t allow anything. Maybe that was the intent. But it’s such a mess that it’s hard to figure out what this bill does (aside from get everybody riled up).
So props to the Michigan Messenger for being among the few media outlets pointing this out, whilst consulting an old professor of mine, Douglas Laycock*:
A leading legal scholar says controversial anti-bullying legislation passed last week in the Michigan Senate is vague, confusing and will do little to address the problem of bullying.
“The bill does not prohibit bullying. It does not apply to students. It does not require any student to do anything or to refrain from doing anything. It requires school boards to adopt anti-bullying policies,” Douglas Laycock, Robert E. Scott Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Virginia Law School. “It does not require the school boards to include language protecting First Amendment rights. In fact, subsection 8 appears to be entirely meaningless. It says that this section does not abridge rights under the First Amendment (which it could not do even if it tried), and this section does not prohibit statements of religious belief or moral conviction. But this section doesn’t prohibit any other statements either. It doesn’t prohibit bullying statements.”
The main thing I learned from Douglas Laycock: You listen to Douglas Laycock. He elaborates:
“It is not reasonably interpreted to mean that one student can bully another as long as the bullier has a sincere religious motivation…When a speaker persists after it becomes clear that the conversation is unwelcome, and persists to the point that he violates the bill’s vague definition of bullying (or a better drafted definition in school policies implementing this bill), then he is bullying despite his religious motivation.”
Elsewhere in the article, reps from the conservative American Family Association of Michigan, the ACLU, and Equality Michigan agree with Laycock. This is a non-issue. Please stop making it one.
Or do this, Washington Post. And yes, these four paragraphs are consecutive in the actual article:
The Detroit News quoted Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), the bill’s sponsor, as saying that the bill is intended to push each school district in the state to write their own anti-bullying policy and that he does not see the law as sanctioning the kind of behavior activists are worried about.
“Certainly a child should not be allowed to go up to another child and say he’s going to hell” based on a religious conviction, Jones told the newspaper.
A murder trial in Bethesda, Md. that just resulted in a guilty verdict for the accused highlights the damage that can be done when people who are in some way alerted to the fact that someone else is in danger stand back and do nothing.
People working at an Apple store in Bethesda heard screams and pleas for help from the Lululemon Athletica shop next door one night last March. They heard a woman pleading, “God help me. Please help me,” and the store’s manager even asked an employee to listen at the wall. But none of the people in the Apple store did anything to help. The woman being assaulted sustained 322 wounds from a hammer, knife, wrench, rope and metal bars.
So here’s what happened: Team Red wanted to score political points, so they passed a horribly-drafted bill that won’t really do much of anything. Some other state legislator from Team Blue wanted to score political points (cough Gretchen Whitmer cough), so she made a big fuss about this bill. That fuss was largely irrelevant and mostly wrong, but didn’t really matter to members of Team Blue who really hate the guys on Team Red. Team Red saw the backlash and now they’re planning to remove useless language from a crappy bill. And everyone is all pissed off over an incorrect interpretation over a bill that wouldn’t do much of anything.
All of this should make everybody question why on earth we should encourage these people to do anything like this.
But don’t take it from me. Take it from Kevin Epling*, the gentleman whose son committed suicide in 2002:
“Trying to have a bill that would clearly ‘outlaw’ bullying would be as laughable as the new language. Those thinking that is what this bill will do are off target,” Epling said.
For what it’s worth, the House is likely to drop the controversial language in the bill. That it went away without much of a fight should tell you how important it was in the first place.
*[Former MLaw-ers: Laycock is at Virginia now? What the hell?]
**[For what it’s worth, I tend to roll my eyes at this sort of legislation (indeed, pretty much all legislation) – legislators are never as powerful as they believe, especially when trying to redefine social behavior. And there are important points about the First Amendment and public schooling (the craptastic nature of which makes every one of these little fights a public trench war) inherent in this dispute. But I can get on board with Mr. Epling’s broad approach in the Messenger article above – education and awareness, not laws, will be most effective in combatting “bullying.” And this crap just detracts from that goal].