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Join the informed, opinionated journalists of The Times' editorial staff in lively discussions at our blog Ed Cetera.

April 9, 2010 at 3:15 PM

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Civil Disagreement: Bullies, and Free Speech

Posted by Lynne Varner

Civil disagreements, with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times editorial board, is a feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Today's the colleagues debate bullying and the extent hateful speech can be contained.

Lynne Varner, left, and Bruce Ramsey

Lynne Varner: Bruce, the tragic case of the Massachusetts teen who killed herself after being bullied in school has once again put the spotlight on the in loco parentis role of schools.

This story recounts how Phoebe Prince made people aware of her mistreatment and asked school authorities for help.

There has to be a way to protect children from bullies without stripping away essential rights such as freedom of speech. This entails tough accountability for school employees who should be paying attention to what they hear in classrooms and hallways. Education isn't just about teaching but also providing an environment conducive to learning.

I've heard all of the excuses for not clamping down on bullying. Some say a bullied student ought to just "man up" or learn to deflect hurtful rumors and jokes. A parent recently said with a straight face that bullied children just need to learn to fight. But the solution is not telling a victim to learn to live with their victimization or fight the perpetrator - that will just earn them a suspension and more bullying upon their return - but getting the adults to assure an environment that doesn't tolerate bullying and goes to some lengths to ensure it doesn't flourish.

We're not talking about getting teased, but about getting tortured.

This piece makes the case that Phoebe Prince's bullies might as well have tightened the noose for her. I wouldn't go that far. If the perpetrators had been convinced that if there bullying continued Phoebe might take her life, some of them might have had second thoughts. If not, high school has become scary. What do you think?

Bruce Ramsey: Lynne, I was pushed around after school by a guy a year older than I, and it was a big deal for me. I had no faith in the school to do anything. I just had to fight him, and finally he let me alone. But that was then. Different time. Different gender.

If it's threats of violence, I agree with you that administrators have to try to provide some enforcement. But you can't put too much faith in it. There are always opportunities when adults are not looking. Yes, I think you have to "man up." You may have to get some friends. You may have to fight, and to hell with what the school says about it.

I am also wary at establishing the principle that the hostility of an environment is to be judged solely by claimed feelings. If that is the rule, some will cultivate injury and use it as a weapon--and they will shut down free commerce in ideas. I don't want that.

Some things a person should have a right to say, whether someone else feels bad or not--and there are more of those things in college than high school, and more of them in the adult world. Here is a case from British Columbia about a lesbian who was made the butt of jokes at a comedy club and filed a claim against the comedian with an arm of the provincial government. Canada doesn't have the First Amendment, so they have cases like this. Behind it is the same theory as is offered by many in the bullied-girl case--the "hostile environment" theory. I don't want to live under Canada's rule.

Of course, a high school is not a comedy club. One deals with teens, one with adults. A high school, private or public, is not a "free country." But you don't want to screw it down too tight, either (particularly if it's the government doing it). Students and teachers need standards that can be known. They should not be put at the mercy of the kid with the thinnest skin.

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