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Do bullies have the right to free speech?

In the past few years, bullying has been brought out of the shadows and into the spotlight. Campaigns like “It Gets Better,” are designed to help gay teens realize that the teenage years are the hardest. There has also been a great deal of attention paid to cyberbullying. As disgusting as some of the bullying can be, as long as the bullying does not physically hurt anyone directly, do bullies have the right to free speech? 

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Bullying is often dismissed as part of growing up.

That must have been written by someone who never experienced being verbally attacked repeatedly by another person.  

Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally. Verbal bullying includes: teasing or taunting; name-calling; inappropriate sexual comments; threats to cause harm.

Victims of verbal bullying can suffer from poor self-esteem.  At an age when an adolescent is already unsure of who he is, the repeated teasing or taunting can lead to depression, refusal to go to school, physical illness, and eventually suicide. Some teens have turned to substance abuse to kill the pain or to enable the victim to go on.  Verbal bullying cannot be taken lightly.  It is not just another problem of puberty.

   IN 2010, the Yale School of Medicine study revealed interesting information about bullying:

  • nationwide, 28% of students in grades 6–12 experienced bullying
  • one in seven students in grades kindergarten through 12th grade is either a bully or has been a victim of bullying.
  • Sometimes a teen or child who has been bullied eventually becomes the bully as a way to retaliate.
  • In fact, revenge for bullying is one of the strongest motivations for school shootings, according to recent bullying statistics.  
  • Bullycide is a term used to describe suicide as the result of bullying.
  • New bullying statistics 2010 are reporting that there is a strong connection between bullying, being bullied and suicide

The first amendment does give the right of free speech.  The founding fathers were not addressing the problems faced by students who because of bullies feel powerless to do or say anything about repeated verbal attacks.

Where is the freedom for those students on the receiving end of bullying? Harassment and bullying can also create a hostile learning and social environment. There is a huge distinction between speech that expresses an idea or a view point about religion or politics or life in general and spiteful words that are intended to hurt another person.  Free speech does cover infringing on a young person’s right to attend school in a non-threatening environment.

In the latest school laws, school officials may lawfully prohibit speech. Upon a showing that the expression either causes an actual disturbance to the school’s educational program — or makes it reasonably foreseeable that the expression would cause such a disturbance, the school administration may intervene.

Bullying does not cover student speech that is not a personal attack but possibly conveys unpopular or disturbing ideas.  A person may be offended by discussion of an idea concerning a personal belief.  In general, a person’s desire to avoid speech of ideas that are abhorrent to him is not justification for suppression by authorities.  But that is not bullying.

Bullying is personal.  It is a vicious verbal attack on the person and his outward appearance, his sexual orientation, his personal beliefs, and his actions.  Often, a person becomes a target by another individual or group.  This is bullying.  This is an invasion of the victim’s rights to live his own life freely without harassment.

The Constitution enters in to this picture but on the victim. The person  who is powerless to help himself without becoming a part of the problem or fearing physical retaliation from the bullying should be protected by school administrations and the law.

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This is a great question and one that should cause us to think about our rights as Americans and how we use those rights.  Although everyone has a right to free speech in America, when it is done to specifically harm someone else, I think their freedom to speak is affecting another's right to life, liberty and happiness.  Having said that, though, I believe that when it comes to children, they have not learned the impact of their actions.  They have not formed an understanding of how their words can hurt another.  When bullies bully, it is often times more about the bully and how he or she feels about something in his/her life than the child being bullied.  It is unfortunate that so many people, adults included, feel the need to denigrate another person instead of appreciating the uniqueness that each one of us brings to our world.  The educational system should not tolerate bullying, and it, along with society as a whole, should work to teach tolerance and understanding.  The freedoms we enjoy in this country should not be taken for granted, and should be applied differently whether the words are spoken by a child or an adult.

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Some bullying involves threatening physcial harm, and this cannot be covered by free speech. However, a lot of bullying involves trying to humiliate someone in front of others. I suppose that this hateful conduct has to be protected, even as it is abhorred and discouraged. Otherwise, who is going to decide who can say what to whom?

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This topic is tricky, because reaction to bullies tends to be entirely emotional.

On the one hand:

Verbal bullying is not the same as physical bullying, and so it should be protected under Free Speech, but it also could be defined under slander and libel. As long as there is no physical confrontation, the speech is protected. This is the same Free Speech standards that protects the vile WBC when they picket funerals.

On the other hand:

Verbal bullying can and does cause real-world, physical consequences. Recent news cycles have focused on suicides, and these show examples of situations that should have never been allowed to continue. There is no parental involvement, or teacher concern, until something terrible happens. All schools should strictly enforce a no-bullying policy, and aways punish bullies, expelling them if necessary.

It is a difficult issue. Children are not educated and informed enough to understand how their actions can have consequences. Adults usually have the real-world knowledge to know that bullying is bad; children feed off the emotions of their peers and do whatever they feel makes them accepted and popular. Most bullies don't have any rational purpose; they're reacting in the way that gets them the most attention.

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I tend to think our freedoms should not encroach upon the freedoms of others.  I have the right to drive my car but I do not have the right to put others in harms way by doing so.  If I drive my car on the wrong side of the road, I am likely to loose my driving privileges.  It is similar with free speech.  I have the right to express my opinion up to a point.  If that opinion is expressed with violence or in such a way that it encroaches on another person's freedoms, then I should no longer be protected under the right to free speech.  We don't think of graffiti as the right to free speech.  We think of it as destruction of property rather than self expression.  Bullying is more than expressing an opinion.  Bullying is attacking an individual.  It's purpose it to belittle, harass, and threaten said individual.  To continue from the example given above, a person might have the right to speak out against homosexuality.  They do not have the right to target a specific gay teen.

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Unquestionably, free speech is not a defense to bullying. All constitutional rights, including that of free speech are not absolute. One cannot claim freedom of religion as justification for performing human sacrifice. Similarly, threats (a typical element of bullying) libel, slander, etc. have all been recognized as exceptions to the right of free speech. Limitations on matters such as this were perhaps best expressed by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes when he said:

My right to swing my fist stops where the other man's nose starts."

The right of free speech is by its very nature designed to protect unpopular speech; it was not and cannot be used to protect any form of speech or conduct which is harmful to others, who also enjoy the right to privacy.

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Many times environment and circumstance impact our right to free speech.  The airport is a great example of environment overruling freedom of speech.  People know better than to yell 'bomb' at an airport; the intense need for security overrides passengers' freedom to say whatever they want.  In a less extreme example, the corporate world monitors, controls, and limits what employees can or cannot say at work or write on their work email; as an employee of that company or business, you willingly waive your freedom of speech in exchange for other benefits, like a paycheck.  Bullying at school operates on a similar principle to the above examples.  Schools' dedication to a safe learning environment for all students supercedes the students' freedom of speech. Bullying, as post #3 pointed out, negatively impacts the educational system, and therefore should not be protected by the first amendment. 

An incident occurred in my school district in which some boys had posted some increasingly threatening messages on another student's facebook page.  Even though they did so after school hours, the boys were still brought into the office on charges of bullying and were dealt consequences for doing so.  They effectively lost their freedom of speech when they crossed the line and endangered the other student's ability to learn and feel safe at school. Many  campuses actively endorse anti-bullying campaigns like 'No Place for Hate' by the Anti-Defamation League or 'Rachel's Challenge' that emphasize on the power of speech to encourage and build up fellow classmates, rather than threaten them. 

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One factor that must be considered here is the fact that most bullying occurs within the context of the educational system.  This puts the free speech rights of bullies in a completely different light.  No one has the right to engage in speech that will disrupt the educational process.  It is very easy to construe bullying as speech that disrupts education.  Therefore, bullies would not have the right to free speech (at least within the confines of their school) so long as their speech is disruptive to the educational mission of the school.

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I would argue that free speech does not apply to bullying.  The bully him/herself has free speech rights, sure, but the act of bullying involves the use of intimidation and threats, which are not protected acts of free speech.  Someone who is merely aggressive in their speech and not directing it towards anyone in particular is not, by definition, a bully.

This issue is difficult to legislate effectively, however, just as it is for hate crimes.  There are any number of ways to bully someone, and since part of determining whether or not it is in fact bullying depends on determining intent, it might many times be difficult to prosecute or sue someone to enforce anti-bullying statutes.

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