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Bullying for Political Reasons is A-Ok?

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Crossposted at Jack & Jill Politics

Just read a disturbing post by Jillian Rayfield at TPM about new legislation in Tennessee which would amend the state’s anti-bullying law to exempt bullying for political reasons just as long as the victim’s person or property aren’t damaged.  It is being denounced for aiming to give a green light to the harassment of gay kids in school, which it is.

But it sure seems to me that a bully could be let off the hook for lashing out at a kid because of their political beliefs about immigration, welfare, affirmative action or any of the other stuff we’ve heard a million times.  I’ve recently been spending a lot of time in Alabama in the aftermath of the passage of the nation’s most extreme anti-immigrant law and can tell you bullying as “political expression” is in full effect there.

Jillian points to an article by the Chattanooga Times Free Press where former State Senator Don Fowler, a leading proponent of the bill, explains the proposal:

People should “never encourage slurs,” Fowler noted, “but the purpose of bullying statutes is to prevent persons or the property being harmed — not their mere sensibilities of being offended. That’s where common sense has to rein.”

This, after he explained away the suicide of a gay teenager who had been the subject of vicious bullying for years by saying that the suicide note didn’t mention bullying and that, in fact, any bullying he may have experienced was just a matter of his feelings being hurt.

Fowler’s group objected to gay activists tying the bill to Rogers’ death, saying “the young man had numerous emotional problems and because he was also open about his homosexual conduct was also often made fun of at school.”

It said the notes Rogers left behind mentioned “his mother leaving him, his alcohol and drug abuse and an eating disorder. But nothing about bullying.”

In Alabama, the civil rights leaders who were there in the 50s and 60s see the new anti-immigrant law there for what it is.  I’ve heard them say that it’s about a discriminatory policy AND about giving the green light to intimidation from anyone.

I was at an ad-hoc hearing of Members of Congress in Birmingham last month where Mary Bauer, from the Southern Poverty Law Center testified that:

A father called to report that his U.S. citizen daughter came home weeping from school after other students told her she did not belong there and needed to go back to Mexico—a country she had never visited.

Of course, the bullies didn’t touch her or steal her lunch money so they were simply expressing their political beliefs.  I can’t tell you how many other stories I’ve heard like this.  A guy in a park being approached by a screaming woman to get out, taunts at a gas station pump – all just expressing a political belief.

Think Progress has an excerpt from the proposal itself:

“Creating a hostile educational environment” shall not be construed to include discomfort and unpleasantness that can accompany the expression of a viewpoint or belief that is unpopular, not shared by other students, or not shared by teachers or school officials.

The policy shall not be construed or interpreted to infringe upon the First Amendment rights of students and shall not prohibit their expression of religious, philosophical, or political views; provided, that such expression does not include a threat of physical harm to a student or damage to a student’s property.

Reading all of this made me think of that iconic photo of fifteen year old Elizabeth Eckford trying to walk into Little Rock Central High in 1957.  The mob of kids shouted her down and threatened to lynch her but they didn’t touch her – just were expressing their political beliefs.  “I’m sorry if my words offended anyone.” 

I know that I shouldn’t be surprised but sometimes I’ve got to put my usually jaded attitude aside and be outraged and amazed for a minute.  The conservatives will try to make this latest bill all about religion but it’s as clear as day that they’re just still pissed that they can’t shout us into the shadows anymore.