Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow is not a stereotypical bully, and her public rebuke of a law school student for expressing, in a private e-mail, a willingness to consider a distasteful hypothesis about race and intelligence is not the sort of rebuke targeted by Massachusetts's new, comprehensive anti-bullying law. But by using her power as dean to intimidate a student into apologizing for privately entertaining an unpopular idea, Minow engaged in a form of bullying that chills dissent and creates a hostile environment for free inquiry, to which Harvard is supposedly devoted -- a form of administrative bullying more likely to be encouraged than deterred by the new Massachusetts law.
As the Boston Globe noted in a story (and I suggested a few weeks ago) by defining bullying broadly to include allegedly harmful, repeated gestures or remarks targeted at a particular student, on or off school grounds, in real life or cyberspace, the Commonwealth's new law of unintended consequences invites constitutional challenges from free speech advocates. The requirement that school officials report any instance of alleged bullying practically guarantees the overreaction by risk averse administrators that my friend Harvey Silverglate predicts: "a firestorm of administrative actions against kids for saying things that are merely slightly unpleasant but do not qualify as bullying or harassment or stalking or any other such thing.''
If you think these predictions are hyperbolic (or insensitive) think again of the public shaming of Harvard law student Stephanie Grace (which Eugene Volokh has extensively and incisively critiqued here). After mischaracterizing Grace's remarks, Dean Minow chastised her for violating Harvard's commitment to "preventing degradation of any individual or group, including race-based insensitivity or hostility," for "engender(ing) offense and hurt," and for speaking "irresponsibly" (never mind that she spoke privately, or that she has a right to discuss ideas that Minow considers "irresponsible"). In other words, Minow treated Grace like a bully. Put aside, for now, the hostility to free speech and fear of speaking freely being imbibed by Harvard law students -- future judges of America. Imagine the likely fate of a high school student who dares to express an interest in similarly offensive or taboo ideas. Then, try imagining her expressing it twice.
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