One of the most famous turns of phrase to come out of the Supreme Court of the United States was Justice Potter Stewart’s quote about obscenity, and the difficulty we have in defining what it is. “But I know it when I see it,” he wrote in the 1964 opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio.
Michigan lawmakers are having the same trouble today, but the supposedly difficult-to-define concept is bullying.
It’s not for lack of trying — the Legislature has been trying for years to define it. But maybe the difficulty is more about politics than it is about the dictionary.
It used to be much easier to define a bully, if you believe a search of our website, which caters to an audience (lawyers, judges and other assorted legal types, lawmakers and policy wonks) that obsess more than the average person about language’s exact meaning. Back in 1994, the word “bully” first started to appear, referring to judges that some lawyers comfortably called bullies. Then stories about bully lawyers started to appear. Then a defendant who was an alleged bully. Then in 2000, we had the first mention of bullies in school. That was a story about a 15-year-old high school student who sued her school when the district wouldn’t protect her from a bullying classmate.
Most recently, back in May, we covered the very same proposed legislation that is moving through Lansing this week.
Somewhere along the way, a controversial phrase that protects morally motivated bullies was added to the bill. The House last Wednesday passed the anti-bullying legislation. Republicans favored it. Democrats criticized it for including language that they say allows for bullying if the bully is excusing his or her behavior as a result of deeply held religious or moral beliefs.
That language is likely to be removed as the bill is considered in the Senate, reports the Detroit Free Press.
From the Freep:
House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, said through his spokesman that a compromise is needed to protect all students.
“There is concern that the language would provide an excuse for bullying. And as far as he’s concerned, there is no excuse,” spokesman Ari Adler said.
The bill, approved by the Senate on Wednesday, requires school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies. But language added at the last minute says the policies would not prohibit “a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian.”
Whatever compromise House Republicans come up with must “say that no child or adult can harass, torment or threaten a pupil in any of our schools,” Democratic Senate Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, said.