Education officials in New Jersey are being sued for allegedly infringing on a student’s free-speech rights when he was accused of bullying another student.
According to a lawsuit filed by the Rutherford Institute, a school nurse sent a letter to parents informing them a student had head lice. While fourth-grade students were working in small groups, one student asked a girl why she had dyed her hair. A third student, identified in the legal brief as “L.L.,” said the girl dyed her hair because she was the one with head lice.
The incident was reported to the Tenafly, N.J., school’s bullying specialist, who “launched a formal investigation and had L.L. removed from class so she could proceed to question him about the incident,” according to the lawsuit. The specialist also interviewed other students and required L.L. to complete a sensitivity assignment.
The teacher then explained to the class why it was important to be nice, which embarrassed L.L. since his classmates knew his comment had spurred the additional instruction. L.L. was stigmatized as a bully, according to the brief.
“The kid didn’t know what was going on,” said John Whitehead, founder and president of the Rutherford Institute. “He wasn’t demeaning her intentionally. He knew what the facts were. He made a factual statement. Then the entire class was reminded of what the kid had done and looked at the kid like Dr. Evil.”
The lawsuit alleges the state statute is too broad to allow for constitutional rights outlined in the First Amendment.
“Our client, all this sensitivity training—he ended up worse than the girl that had the lice,” Whitehead said. “They have to think about what they’re doing to the kid who’s [allegedly bullying].”
The policy is too extreme for common sense, he said.
“I would put this in the category of political correctness gone crazy amuck,” he said. “They don’t take into account what it does to the student who is called a bully when he’s not a bully. What do you do, put tape over your mouth so you don’t make a mistake?”
Whitehead and Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, said policymakers need to remember the place and purpose of free speech when considering anti-bullying laws and policies.
“Public schools have a number of obligations, in terms of students they serve,” Paulson said. “They have to create a safe and secure learning environment, and that would mean shielding students from harassing behavior. But equally important is that they instill in young people an understanding of the core principles of the First Amendment and the importance of being able to share ideas freely. They’re not mutually exclusive.”