Friday, August 25, 2006

1st Amendment v. Harassment

Discussion of a bill in the California Assembly devolved into personal attacks and acrimony yesterday.  Here's where I stand.  I support everyone's right, if they so believe, to disagree with and politically oppose what they consider "a homosexual lifestyle."  I do not support a right to discriminate against homosexual persons.  It is a fine line, but it is a very clear one.  It reminds me of a discussion Tucker Carlson was having with a principal of a middle school in California that I caught one day on tv.  Carlson asked the principal whether a student who said to a gay student, "I think what you're doing is sinful" would be protected speech.  The principal said yes.  I would have said no, that there's a difference between protected speech and harassment and bullying.  When someone uses speech to defame or otherwise torment an individual based on their individual characteristics, it's harassment.  One is free to opine about the legitimacy of a concept, but criticisms of someone's life choices can be excluded from the first amendment in certain contexts, such as school.

School is a place of rigid standards and rules of behavior.  One is not as free in school as out of school.  One expects to submit to rules of behavior and conduct when entering a school.  School is more like the military than the public square.  Certain restrictions to ensure cohesion must and should be expected.  Criticisms go both ways, too.  Since everyone is sinful, pointing the finger right back would be a natural response to being called a sinner.  Everyone loves to spot a hypocrite.   I'm sure that there are skeletons in the closets of those assemblymen, or their colleagues.  It is to the gay assemblymen's credit that they didn't indulge in such recrimination.


stwill61 said...


I can certainly accept that calling someone "gay" (or any of a number of less acceptable words) CAN be bullying, and thus is neither acceptable nor protected.

However if I am a student in school discussing my beliefs, are you saying I'm not allowed to express a belief if it offends a "life choice" -- that doing so is automatically harassment?

Suppose I said "I think what you're doing is sinful" to an underage drinker?

Or if I were a vegetarian and said it to a meat-eating classmate?

Or a member of PETA and said it to a fur-wearing debutante?

Isn't context required before "bullying" or "harassment" occurs?

On the face of it, the question which was asked of the principal seemed to be addressing discussion and debate, not bullying.  Of course, I didn't see the report, so I don't have the context.

I can agree with this statement you made:
"I support everyone's right, if they so believe, to disagree with and politically oppose what they consider 'a homosexual lifestyle.'  I do not support a right to discriminate against homosexual persons."

What I don't agree with is that the line between the two is clear.  

The example you give demostrates that lack of clarity, to me.

Peace, my friend.

hackermc said...

To Steve,

A person who says that they are gay, especially in high school, is not necessarily having sex.  Thus, "I think what you are doing is sinful," seems a meaningless statement.  Doing what, exactly?  Having thoughts?  Unless the gay person says, "I'm gay and I have sex behind the bleachers with members of my own gender" or words to that effect, they aren't *doing* anything sinful, and accusing them of being sinfully impure and less than human is harassment.  

Saying "I think gay sex is sinful" is certainly acceptable and non-harassing.  Are you telling me that you cannot differentiate between the content of the two statements?  One is a judgmental condemnation of a *person* the other is a statement of values and principles.  The difference between them is the focus is on the *you*.

stwill61 said...

Again, context is required.  Yes, I can see the difference -- and that's why my examples focussed on the actions of people.  I inferred from the statement "I think what you're doing is sinful" that the speaker knew something about the actions of the person.  Certainly, that is an assumption.  And, remembering back to high school -- it's unlikely that one student knows much about the actions of others -- so much rumor and innuendo.

Still, we are asking a lot of our teenagers -- not to mention the rest of us -- if we're going to classify one statement as harassment and other as protected speech, when the speaker meant the latter but used the words of the former.

To me, the distinction between harassment and protected speech must be made in context.  Bullies could use the "protected speech" phrases and get their bullying done.  Similarly, someone trying to be thoughtful could say the wrong words.

Still, I am now getting your point -- the techniques we use to discuss concepts should be removed from the personal.