NEW YORK – The effort in New York State to combat bullying in schools is "deeply flawed", according to the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), which has urged New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo not to sign the recently passed S.7740/A.I0712 bill into law. In a letter sent after the announcement of the bill's passage, NCAC praised the goals of the bill but warned of language so vague and overbroad that it "will likely create more problems than it solves."
NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin notes that "schools prepare young people to become responsible adults by creating an environment that promotes the exchange of ideas but also equips them to respond effectively and respectfully to ideas they disagree with." The letter argues passionately that the importance of the First Amendment in schools is reflected in court decisions that permit regulating non-threatening speech only in limited circumstances, such as when the speech will create a substantial disruption in the school environment or deprive another student of educational opportunities. But the bill on Gov. Cuomo's desk will "chill speech that is clearly protected" and the legislation is far too vague, "asking students and school officials alike to guess at what kind of speech might interfere with a student's mental or emotional well-being" and "what constitutes 'emotional harm'."
While the bill's treatment of in-school speech is already worrying, even more alarming is the legislation's attempt to extend a school's responsibilities to policing online speech that "might reach school property" – even if a statement is made off-campus and does not refer to school activities.
"Does speech 'reach' school property if two students talk about it in the hall", Bertin inquires, "or if one student tells another in school about something said in a private email?"
As a practical matter, the letter notes that the bill is "so unrealistic as to be unenforceable." The legislation's vagueness, combined with the everyday banter that takes place in many school hallways in casual and friendly contexts is a recipe for disastrous over-reaction when newspapers already feature stories of children being suspended (and on occasion, even led out of class in handcuffs) for innocuous behavior.
The letter concludes by imploring New York lawmakers "to work towards creating a model for other states that prevents bullying and harassment without restricting students' other fundamental rights" by empowering school officials to act as educators, not enforcers. "Even if the law could control what students say, it cannot control what they think, which is the challenge that must be addressed in the effort to teach about the harms of bullying."
Gov. Cuomo has to decide if he is interested in protecting the education of students or the re-election of state legislators.