Tenn. bill would amend bullying law to protect religious belief

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The national phenomenon of cyberbullying continues to cause consternation in Tennessee, as legislators grapple with whether to amend the state’s existing law.

The proposed Bullying Prevention Act of 2012 would expand on the definition of “hostile educational environment” in the state law. The measure, which has been introduced in the State House and Senate, provides that:

“creating a hostile educational environment or causing emotional distress shall not be construed to include mere discomfort and unpleasantness that can accompany the expression of a viewpoint or belief that is unpopular, not shared by other students, or not shared by teachers or school officials.”

An article in The Tennessean of Nashville reports that the proposed measure, introduced in January, represents an attempt to protect the rights of students to engage in religious expression, including a religious viewpoint that homosexuality is wrong. The article also says opponents of the bill fear it will give license to some to bully gay and lesbian students.

Under current Tennessee law, school districts must adopt an anti-bullying policy that includes a prohibition on cyberbullying. T.C.A. 49-6-1016 provides: “Each school district shall adopt a policy prohibiting harassment, intimidation, bullying or cyber-bullying. School districts are encouraged to develop the policy after consultation with parents and guardians, school employees, volunteers, students, administrators and counselors.”

T.C.A. 49-6-1015 defines “cyberbullying” as “bullying undertaken through the use of electronic means.” It further defines “harassment, intimidation or bullying” as “any act that substantially interferes with a student’s educational beliefs, opportunities or performance.” The law further says school bullying means that the behavior physically harms another student, places him or her in reasonable fear of harm, causes emotional distress or creates a “hostile educational environment.”

It is this definition of “hostile educational environment” that could present free-speech quandaries for school officials. Is a student who wears a T-shirt expressing his religious belief criticizing homosexuality creating a hostile educational environment for other students? Is a student who directly questions a gay student’s sexual orientation crossing the line into unprotected harassment?

Many other states also have laws against cyberbullying. Recently a measure was also signed in Ohio.

Such questions are sure to arise as the national effort to prevent bullying continues.

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