The House bill would mandate school officials to undergo annual training to identify and prevent bullying — supporting the absurd notion that teachers and principals cannot, without such training, recognize the behavior. (If they cannot, they should be fired, not trained.) The bill would also require school officials — from teachers to bus drivers — to report incidents of bullying, which it defined, in part, as the use of repeated “written, verbal, or electronic expression, or physical act or gesture . . . directed at a victim that causes physical or emotional harm or damage to the victim’s property; [or] creates a hostile environment at school.” Can this readily be distinguished from the normal verbal activity of “teasing”? Already the phrase “hostile environment,” used in federal employment law, has been exploited to justify the enactment of college speech codes, which courts have categorically held to violate First Amendment free-speech protections. High-schoolers admittedly have fewer speech rights than undergraduates, but still — a high school is not a totalitarian enclave.

It seems clear that the next step for anti-bullying proponents will be to enact the crime of bullying. Indeed, the State Senate bill includes a provision for the creation of a special commission to “review criminal laws to determine if they need to be amended in order to address bullying and cyber-bullying.”

The South Hadley cases prove that traditional state laws are perfectly adequate to deal with behavior that goes too far. The worst response to tragedy would be for the legislature to criminalize the normal — even if sometimes discomforting — speech of everyday life in our rough-and-tumble free society. The legislature should not allow itself to be bullied into thus distorting our laws and liberties.

Kyle Smeallie assisted in preparing this piece.

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