Is the Tyler Clementi Act a Threat to Free Speech?

David French in the National Review Online argues that the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act (H.R. 6425) is a threat to free speech.

As I mentioned previously, the bill specifically targets cyberbullying and includes blogging activity within its coverage. My discussion of the bill is here.

French’s argument is that the bill has First Amendment problems because it lacks a requirement that the harassment be “objectively offensive.”

I see his point, but I think he’s off the mark. The text of the bill requires that the harassment be:

sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive so as to limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a program or activity at an institution of higher education, or to create a hostile or abusive educational environment at an institution of higher education

That seems to me to be limiting enough to protect legitimate expressive interests. At the same time it seems specifically tailored to protecting a person’s ability to benefit from a federally funded educational program.

In fact, the bill’s current limitations seem to be more protective of free speech interests than an “objectively offensive” requirement would be by itself.

An objectively offensive requirement would presumably make a jury issue out of how far the content of the speech deviates from community norms. That sounds to me like a device that could marginalize minority viewpoints and cause more First Amendment problems than it solves.

At any rate, I certainly disagree with French’s assertion that the law’s “primary effect will be a greater chill on free expression.” I think the primary effect would be communicating to gay students society’s revulsion at gay-bashing, as well as our commitment to allowing all students, regardless of sexual orientation, to benefit from America’s educational opportunities.

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