The House is poised to vote — perhaps as early as next week – on H.R. 6019, The Juvenile Accountability Block Grant Reauthorization and the Bullying Prevention and Intervention Act. The bill includes a section providing grants for “research-based bullying prevention, cyber bullying prevention, and gang prevention programs, as well as intervention programs regarding bullying.”
What, exactly, are these anti-bullying programs? What’s defined as bullying? As cyber bullying? The bill provides no definitions, raising a host of serious First Amendment concerns. The bill’s vagueness invites interest groups to shut down student speech with which the groups disagree. Constitutionally protected speech could yield to the imperative that no one’s feelings be hurt. Without precise definitions, political correctness will trump the robust exchange of ideas.
These aren’t idle concerns. The 2011 enforcement report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights shows that the First Amendment (both the free-speech and free-exercise clauses) is being trampled by school districts across the country attempting to eliminate undefined ”bullying.” Student speech with a religious component is especially vulnerable to anti-bullying speech codes.
Beyond the First Amendment concerns, there’s the matter of federal involvement in matters that are plainly a local concern. The total tab for the bill is $200 million over five years, a significant chunk of which will be directed to nebulous “anti-bullying” efforts — efforts properly the province of parents, teachers, kids and, in extreme cases, local police — not congressmen and bureaucrats in Washington.
Before throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at a local problem that Congress hasn’t even bothered to define, perhaps the federal government might take a crack at the $15.7 trillion debt. The contours of that problem are pretty well-defined already.
— Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Carissa Mulder is a Special Assistant on the Commission. These comments do not necessarily reflect the position of the Commission.