NEWARK, New Jersey — Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have asked a federal court to declare a New Jersey anti-bullying law unconstitutional in light of its chilling effect on students’ free speech rights. The Institute’s latest brief, which counters a move by the New Jersey Commissioner of Education to have the lawsuit dismissed, argues that the state’s enforcement of the anti-bullying act represents a violation of students’ rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the New Jersey state constitution. Institute attorneys filed the First Amendment lawsuit in Lim v. Board of Education of the Borough of Tenafly in December 2013 on behalf of a 4th grade boy who was punished under the act for truthfully stating that a fellow student had head lice.
“What school officials conveniently seem to keep forgetting is that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “While we all want our schools to be safe, nurturing environments for our children, anti-bullying statutes—well-meaning as they may start out—are Orwellian in nature and inevitably run afoul of the Constitution’s protections for free speech and expression.”
In 2011, New Jersey amended its bullying law with sweeping reforms that significantly impacted student speech rights. Under the new law, the state created new “Anti-Bullying Specialist” positions in each district, who were responsible for identifying and reporting “harassment, intimidation or bullying” violations by students. Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that while the purpose of the law is admirable, the law’s scope is unconstitutionally broad and the language is too vague to give parents or students adequate notice about what statements will or will not be prohibited.
Highlighting the potential absurd applications of the law, Institute attorneys draw attention to an incident that took place in September 2011, when a 4th grade boy was punished under the act for correctly stating that a fellow student had head lice. A few days after a note was sent home to the parents of a class of 4th grade students, warning them that one of the students had head lice, several students were sitting at a group table completing an assignment together. During the discussion, one student asked a female student why she had dyed her hair. After she failed to respond to the question, one young boy, L.L., correctly replied that she had done so because she was the student who had head lice. The female student complained to the teacher who in turn instructed L.L. to apologize, and the class lesson continued uninterrupted. The teacher then reported the incident to the school’s “Anti-Bullying Specialist,” who filled out a bullying report and informed the Superintendent about the incident. As a result of the finding, the student was forced to undergo a special sensitivity assignment, and the entire class was reminded about the need to be kind to each other, which further embarrassed the fourth grader. L.L.’s parents appealed the bullying determination first with the local school board, and then with the state Board of Education, both of which affirmed the decision.
Arguing that the statute punishes any speech deemed “hurtful,” even if factually true and non-disruptive, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute filed a First Amendment lawsuit in federal court, asking that the statute be struck down, and that students like L.L. not be penalized in accordance with the statute for exercising their constitutional rights. Affiliate attorney Mike Daily is assisting in the case.