A sixth grade student at a school in New Jersey’s Somerset Township was sentenced to “five lunch-time detentions” for criticizing a fellow classmate’s vegetarianism.
The student had told his classmate “it’s not good to not eat meat” and “[he] should eat meat because he’d be smarter and have bigger brains.” He added that “vegetarians are idiots.”
The school board says the student “harassed” his classmate.
Apparently this whole imbroglio went to trial, for a judge upheld the school district’s decision:
The District concluded that C.C. made verbal communications that were reasonably perceived as being motivated by a distinguishing characteristic between the two boys, namely vegetarianism, which substantially interfered with the rights of K.S. and had the effect of insulting or demeaning him. . . .
Definitions relative to adoption of harassment and bullying prevention policies are found in N.J.S.A. 18A:37-14, which states in part:
“Harassment, intimidation or bullying” means any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents, that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory disability, or by any other distinguishing characteristic […] that substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students […]
The disciplined student’s (“C.C.”) comments about it not being “good” to go meatless and brain size were determined “to be motivated by the distinguishing characteristic of K.S. being a vegetarian.”
There was nothing said about the “vegetarians are idiots” remark, which is clearly the most offensive.
Would it be considered “harassment” if a vegetarian student said similar things to a peer who eats meat — by pointing out some of the consequences of such a diet? Wouldn’t that be singling out a kid based on the “distinguishing characteristic” of being a meat eater?
Sounds fair, if we’re to be consistent.
As Eugene Volokh notes, “once the law calls such speech ‘harassment, ‘intimidation’ or ‘bullying’ in one area, it’s easy for these labels to be applied in other areas as well, especially because the labels are so ill-defined and potentially so broad.”