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Bullying legislation is too vague

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Steinbach city council was correct when it said that Bill 18, the proposed safe and inclusive schools" legislation, "does not adequately define bullying."

Sec. 1.2(1) states that bullying is behaviour that "is intended to cause, or should be known to cause, fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other forms of harm to another person’s body, feelings, self-esteem, reputation or property."

So, 14-year old students should know that saying something like "You have donkey ears" is likely to "cause distress" in other students or affect their self-esteem and, more importantly, they could be charged with bullying.

Good luck! Fourteen-year olds seem to be offended by almost any comment they don’t like. Equally, they are likely to say outrageous things to each other.

Consequently, this vague definition of bullying will likely generate distress, perhaps even law suits, in both public and private schools.

Consider what has happened in U.S. universities where similar regulations have been in force for years.

At Yale University, students had T-shirts printed with a quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book This Side of Paradise "I think of all Harvard men as sissies." University administrators forced students to remove their T-shirts while on campus.

Tuffs University has a regulation about students holding "sexist attitudes." In 2007, the students’ newspaper was charged when it quoted passages from the Quran and published a story about the status of women in Saudi Arabia.

Western Michigan University has policies forbidding a "condescending sex-based attitude." Students have been charged after making off-handed comments.

At California State University, students are prohibited from the "continual use of generic masculine terms... to refer to people of both sexes." I guess students should use the generic "s/he/it" to be inclusive of all genders. (Sorry, this generic term is likely to be offensive to some people.)

Every university student and faculty member has probably been guilty of violating some of these university regulations. Fortunately, only a few have been charged, and even fewer have been convicted.

Of course, Americans are much more legalistic than Canadians.

So, will Manitobans ask the courts to rule that their children are innocent of bullying for making off-handed comments? No one knows.

But, we are likely to find out if we leave the definition of bullying as vague as it is in Bill 18.

In the recent Whatcott decision, the Supreme Court of Canada struck eight words out of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. These words prohibited speech that "ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of" other people. Why? The words are too vague.

For these reasons, Steinbach city council is right to be concerned about the definition of bullying in the proposed legislation. So should every citizen in the province.

We need a tighter definition of bullying before Bill 18 is passed.

 

Rodney A. Clifton, co-author of What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them, is senior fellow with the Frontier Centre and a senior scholar at St. John’s College, University of Manitoba.

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