Thugs win again — ‘My Little Pony’ edition

WLOS-TV reports that 9-year-old Grayson Bruce was being “punch[ed],” “push[ed]” and “call[ed] … horrible names” for bringing a “My Little Pony” bag to school — so school officials told him to stop bringing the bag:

[Bruce's mother, Noreen, says] the school asked him to leave the bag at home because it had become a distraction and was a “trigger for bullying.” …

Buncombe County Schools declined an interview, but sent us this statement, “an initial step was taken to immediately address a situation that had created a disruption in the classroom. Buncombe County Schools takes bullying very seriously, and we will continue to take steps to resolve this issue.”

This story struck me much like the story of the high school kids told not to wear American flag T-shirts on Cinco de Mayo, because of thuggery by some of their classmates.

It may well be that the school may restrict speech that yields a disruptive reaction by some listeners, given Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969); the First Amendment generally bans such governmental enforcement of a “heckler’s veto,” but the matter may be different in K-12 schools. And I understand school authorities’ desire to stop the disruption, and get back to teaching.

But such reaction by schools itself teaches students something — it teaches bullies that, if they threaten enough disruption, the school will react against their victims. At this point, it’s just 9-year-olds, and 9-year-olds do some dumb things. (The “thugs” in my headline is a bit facetious, though not much.) But they can be taught before they grow up into 15-year-olds, or 20-year-olds.

In particular, if the school used this as an opportunity to teach kids that they can’t beat kids up for being fans of material that is seen as “too girly,” the high school students that these kids will grow into might be more tolerant of speech and behavior they disapprove of. And if the school teaches kids that, if they push others around, the school will make those others conform, then the high school students of the future will learn that lesson, too.

Of course, parents might sometimes want to teach their children that discretion is the better part of valor, and that they need to pick their battles. Maybe that’s a wise lesson to teach here, too, though much depends on the circumstances. (Teaching kids to stand up for what they believe in, even in the face of violence, can also be a good lesson, and while My Little Pony might seem a bit frivolous to many of us, it might not seem this way to the boy.) But in any event, it seems to me that this should be a call for the child and his parents to make. The school should protect the child by coming down on the bullies who are pushing the boy around — not by itself pushing the boy around some more.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy. Before coming to UCLA, he clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court and for Judge Alex Kozinski on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Volokh is the author of the textbooks The First Amendment and Related Statutes (4th ed. 2011), The Religion Clauses and Related Statutes (2005), and Academic Legal Writing (4th ed. 2010), as well as over 70 law review articles. Volokh is also an Academic Affiliate for the Mayer Brown LLP law firm.
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Eugene Volokh | March 17