According to the Board of Education of the Township of Montgomery in Somerset County, N.J., a sixth-grader committed “harassment, intimidation, or bullying” of a classmate:

C.C. admitted making comments to K.S. regarding his decision not to eat meat. The [Board] report found that C.C. told K.S. that “it’s not good to not eat meat” and that “he should eat meat because he’d be smarter and have bigger brains.” C.C. himself wrote that he told K.S. that “vegetarians are idiots.” The anti-bullying specialist found that C.C. stated that K.S.’s response to his comments was amusing to him.

And last week an administrative judge upheld that decision (C.C. v. Board of Ed., 2016 WL 958848):

The District concluded that C.C. made verbal communications that were reasonably perceived as being motivated by a distinguishing characteristic between the two boys, namely vegetarianism, which substantially interfered with the rights of K.S. and had the effect of insulting or demeaning him. . . .
Definitions relative to adoption of harassment and bullying prevention policies are found in N.J.S.A. 18A:37-14, which states in part:
… In this case, C.C. admitted making comments to K.S. regarding his decision not to eat meat. The report found that C.C. told K.S. that “it’s not good to not eat meat” and that “he should eat meat because he’d be smarter and have bigger brains.” C.C. himself wrote that he told K.S. that “vegetarians are idiots.” I CONCLUDE that those comments are reasonably perceived to be motivated by the distinguishing characteristic of K.S. being a vegetarian.

Note that the decision didn’t single out the nonsubstantive insult — “vegetarians are idiots” — as being the punishable statement. Instead, the decision treated this statement as on par with polite factual and normative claims (whether accurate or not), such as “it’s not good to not eat meat” and “[you] should eat meat because [you]’d be smarter and have bigger brains,” would be “harassment, intimidation, or bullying,” presumably because they can also be “insulting or demeaning.”

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The punishment here was modest: “five (5) lunch-time detentions” — during which C.C. “was given the opportunity to speak with staff about his actions, with an intention of preventing future instances of such conduct” — and “no other disciplinary consequences.” But the labels “harassment,” “intimidation,” and “bullying” (as opposed to, say, “rudeness” or “unkindness” or “personal insults”) can often have much broader consequences, as I’ve chronicled in many past posts. And once the law calls such speech “harassment,” “intimidation” or “bullying” in one area, it’s easy for these labels to be applied in other areas as well, especially because the labels are so ill-defined and potentially so broad.

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