During an April 12th debate, Heather Wilson, a Republican running for U.S. Senate in New Mexico, joined the so-called pro-bullying chorus when she staked out her opposition to SB 555, the Student Non-Discrimination Act. The measure, introduced by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), would provide LGBT students with similar civil rights protections against bullying “as those that currently apply to students based on race and gender.” Wilson argued that the bill would violate students’ free speech rights and criminalize “teasing”:
WILSON: I mean if somebody gets bullied for having, gosh a low voice — that’s never happened to me. … But I think one of the things why I don’t support the act is because I think it’s misplaced. They are things I’m willing to tolerate that I’m not willing to approve.
With respect to this particular agenda we have to recognize as parents that children tease each other because you’re short or you’re tall or you’re a redhead or because you’re ugly or because you’re smart or because you’re dumb or all kinds of differences and as parents we have to deal with that and strengthen our children to be comfortable with themselves and also to show empathy and acceptance towards others, but that particular act is so broad it would actually punish children and say that it’s prohibited to express an opinion with respect to homosexuality in the schools. I just think that’s wrong and it’s a violation of the First Amendment.
Franken’s measure — which is modeled on existing civil rights laws — would establish a new law explicitly protecting children from harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The bill doesn’t criminalize speech; it targets harassment of LGBT students, requires schools to institute a policy of nondiscrimination and take immediate action to investigate and address it. Section 9(b) of the bill specifically addresses Wilson’s concern: “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to alter legal standards regarding, or affect the rights available to individuals or groups under, other Federal laws that establish protections for freedom of speech and expression, such as legal standards and rights available to religious and other student groups under the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act .”
The bill, which was introduced in March of last year, has 37 co-sponsors in the Senate and a companion legislation introduced in the House has 157 supporters.