Is there really a bullying epidemic?

Reason‘s Nick Gillespie, writing in The Wall Street Journal, is skeptical:

But is America really in the midst of a “bullying crisis,” as so many now claim? I don’t see it. I also suspect that our fears about the ubiquity of bullying are just the latest in a long line of well-intentioned yet hyperbolic alarms about how awful it is to be a kid today.

I have no interest in defending the bullies who dominate sandboxes, extort lunch money and use Twitter to taunt their classmates. But there is no growing crisis. Childhood and adolescence in America have never been less brutal. Even as the country’s overprotective parents whip themselves up into a moral panic about kid-on-kid cruelty, the numbers don’t point to any explosion of abuse. As for the rising wave of laws and regulations designed to combat meanness among students, they are likely to lump together minor slights with major offenses. The antibullying movement is already conflating serious cases of gay-bashing and vicious harassment with things like…a kid named Cheese having a tough time in grade school.

How did we get here? We live in an age of helicopter parents so pushy and overbearing that Colorado Springs banned its annual Easter-egg hunt on account of adults jumping the starter’s gun and scooping up treat-filled plastic eggs on behalf of their winsome kids. The Department of Education in New York City—once known as the town too tough for Al Capone—is seeking to ban such words as “dinosaurs,” “Halloween” and “dancing” from citywide tests on the grounds that they could “evoke unpleasant emotions in the students,” it was reported this week. (Leave aside for the moment that perhaps the whole point of tests is to “evoke unpleasant emotions.”)

[…]

But is bullying—which the stopbullying.gov website of the Department of Health and Human Services defines as “teasing,” “name-calling,” “taunting,” “leaving someone out on purpose,” “telling other children not to be friends with someone,” “spreading rumors about someone,” “hitting/kicking/pinching,” “spitting” and “making mean or rude hand gestures”—really a growing problem in America?

Despite the rare and tragic cases that rightly command our attention and outrage, the data show that things are, in fact, getting better for kids. When it comes to school violence, the numbers are particularly encouraging. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1995 and 2009, the percentage of students who reported “being afraid of attack or harm at school” declined to 4% from 12%. Over the same period, the victimization rate per 1,000 students declined fivefold.

When it comes to bullying numbers, long-term trends are less clear. The makers of “Bully” say that “over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year,” and estimates of the percentage of students who are bullied in a given year range from 20% to 70%. NCES changed the way it tabulated bullying incidents in 2005 and cautions against using earlier data. Its biennial reports find that 28% of students ages 12-18 reported being bullied in 2005; that percentage rose to 32% in 2007, before dropping back to 28% in 2009 (the most recent year for which data are available). Such numbers strongly suggest that there is no epidemic afoot (though one wonders if the new anti-bullying laws and media campaigns might lead to more reports going forward).

After my horrible experiences in high school, I should be right on board with the anti-bullying movement, but I find something deeply off-putting about it.  Maybe it’s the sight of so many of the people who made my junior-high life a living hell preaching about it on Facebook.

Or, it could be the fact that legislators across North America are further trying to limit our personal freedoms.  For the children, you know:

In their never-ending quest to make Connecticut a less annoying place, state legislators — apparently having solved unemployment, crime and school funding — have trained their sights on annoying speech.

bill introduced March 22 by the Senate Judiciary Committee — which is up for a hearing in that committee Thursday — would create the new misdemeanor criminal offense of “Electronic Harassment.” (Note to Dave Barry: “Electronic Harassment” would be an exceptional name for a band.)

A person would be guilty of the crime of “Electronic Harassment” under the following conditions: (1) Transmitting information over any electronic medium (anything from radio to the Web to texting), (2) that is based on a person’s “actual or perceived traits or characteristics,” (3) that causes a person “substantial embarrassment or humiliation within an academic or professional community,” and (4) is done with an intent to “annoy” or “alarm” the person.

Read that carefully, and think about how much First Amendment real estate it covers.

For example … how about this Al Franken column, [actually a Joe Conason column, about Franken’s controversial election to the Senate – DJP] “Rush Limbaugh is still a big fat idiot.” Transmitted electronically? Check. Based on traits or characteristics? Argue amongst yourselves whether they are “actual” or “perceived.” Causing substantial humiliation? If it is possible for Rush Limbaugh to feel humiliation, definitely. Done with an intent to annoy? Oh, at the very least.

Stay clear of Connecticut, Senator Franken — or bring your checkbook, since SB 456 carries up to a $2,000 fine, with the possibility of a year in jail.

For being annoying.

Via the great Ken at Popehat, whose posts about “cyberbullying” legislation are not to be missed.

Blasphemy in Pennsylvania

The always excellent Cathy Young on the “Zombie Mohammed” case in Pennsylvania:

It all started with a Halloween parade in which Ernest Perce V, head of the state chapter of American Atheists, marched as “Zombie Mohammed” with turban, fake beard, and chants of “I am the prophet Mohammed, zombie from the dead.” (A fellow atheist activist was “Zombie Pope.”) An offended Muslim immigrant, Talaag Elbayomy, approached Perce and threatened to call the police, apparently believing that such blasphemy was against the law; Perce claims Elbayomy spun him around and grabbed his neck while trying to pull off his beard and his “Mohammed of Islam” sign. Elbayomy was charged with harassment.

On December 6, Judge Martin dismissed the case for lack of evidence. He also gave Perce a lengthy tongue-lashing, chastising him for everything from ignorance of Islam to failure to understand the importance of religion to Muslims to an “ugly American” disregard for other cultures. Noting that Perce’s actions would have been punishable by death in many Muslim countries, he continued, “Here in our society, we have a constitution that gives us many rights, specifically First Amendment rights. It’s unfortunate that some people use the First Amendment to deliberately provoke others.” He told Perce that while he had the right to be offensive, “you’re way outside your bounds on First Amendment rights.”

[…]

With such conflicting testimony, Judge Martin’s decision to dismiss the case is entirely reasonable. The way in which he used his position as a bully pulpit is another story.

It is not unusual for judges to admonish the parties in a case, sometimes harshly, about their conduct. In this instance, though, the lecture was startlingly one-sided. Judge Martin lambasted Perce for his disrespect for other people’s culture and faith while not one critical word was spoken to Elbayomy.

There is nothing wrong with telling someone that just because he has a constitutional right to say something doesn’t mean he should say it (which Judge Martin told me was his point). Yet there is something inherently disturbing about a public official chastising a citizen for engaging in constitutionally protected expression, however obnoxious. It is especially troubling when it’s a matter of criticizing or even lampooning religion, an area in which free speech has so often been trampled.

Meanwhile, Judge Martin had before him a defendant who, by his own and his lawyer’s admission, was grossly ignorant of the protections for free speech in America. Surely, a lecture on civics would not have been amiss.

When I posed this question to the judge, he replied that his remarks about First Amendment rights were addressed to both parties: “It was a dual message … that the victim was within his constitutional rights to do what he did.” But, given that Perce was the one being chided, that message was likely lost on the defendant—particularly since it came with the disclaimer that these rights should not be used to “piss off other people and other cultures” and with the baffling statement that Perce was “outside [his] bounds on First Amendment rights.”

The case has another worrisome aspect. While no religion has a monopoly on fanaticism, it is no secret that, for many complex reasons, religious intolerance is at present far more entrenched, more common, and more extreme in Islam than in other major religions. Some argue that violent suppression of dissent is in the nature of Islam, and insinuate that every Muslim in the West is a potential agent of sharia tyranny.

Judge Martin did not, of course, invoke sharia law as a basis for his ruling; nor did he suggest that Elbayomy would have been justified in assaulting Perce because his religion commanded it. But he did seem to suggest that insults to the Muslim faith are especially bad because of how impermissible blasphemy is in many Muslim countries and because of the role religion plays in Muslims’ lives. Indeed, he specifically drew a distinction between “how Americans practice Christianity” and how Muslims practice Islam: “Islam is not just a religion, it’s their culture … it’s their very essence, their very being.”

Gingrich vs. the Judiciary

With his poll numbers finally starting to tumble, GOP Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is going full-on demagogue:

Newt Gingrich says as president he would ignore Supreme Court decisions that conflicted with his powers as commander in chief, and he would press for impeaching judges or even abolishing certain courts if he disagreed with their rulings.

“I’m fed up with elitist judges” who seek to impose their “radically un-American” views, Gingrich said Saturday in a conference call with reporters.

In recent weeks, the Republican presidential contender has been telling conservative audiences he is determined to expose the myth of “judicial supremacy” and restrain judges to a more limited role in American government. “The courts have become grotesquely dictatorial and far too powerful,” he said in Thursday’s Iowa debate.

As a historian, Gingrich said he knows President Thomas Jefferson abolished some judgeships, and President Abraham Lincoln made clear he did not accept the Dred Scott decision denying that former slaves could be citizens.

[…]

But the former House speaker demurred when asked whether President Obama could ignore a high court ruling next year if it declared unconstitutional the new healthcare law and its mandate that all Americans have health insurance by 2014. Gingrich said presidents can ignore court rulings only in “extraordinary” situations.

An “extraordinary” situation, I presume, would be one in which the courts don’t rule the way Mr. Gingrich wants them to.

Lawyer and libertarian blogger Doug Mataconis lets him have it:

Gingrich’s suggestion yesterday that he would feel free to ignore Supreme Court decisions that he disagrees with is particularly dangerous. When I wrote about this on Friday, I noted the examples from history that Gingrich typically cites when he talks about this issue. Each one of them, from Jackson ignoring the Court’s rulings on Indian removal, to Lincoln ignoring the court rulings on his blatantly unconstitutional suspension of the Writ Of Habeus Corpus, to FDR’s effort to strong-arm the Supreme Court with his court packing plan, involved instances where the Executive Branch was seeking to expand its own power by ignoring the rulings of a co-equal branch of the Federal Government. If Newt Gingrich thinks its okay for him to ignore a Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, then that also means that it would be okay for Barack Obama  to ignore the Supreme Court if it declares the PPACA unconstitutional next June. If Arizona can ignore the Supreme Court saying that its immigration law its unconstitutional, then California can ignore the Supreme Court saying that its decision not to enforce immigration laws.

Moreover, as a supposed historian, one would think that Gingrich would recognize the historical roots of his argument. It’s not unlike the doctrine of nullification that was widely popular in the Southern United States before the Civil War, and reasserted itself some 100 years later. After the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, most of the states in the Southern United States undertook efforts to evade having to comply with the ruling or ignore it all together. Prince Edward County, Virginia, for example, took the extreme step of closing all of its public schools rather than comply with court-ordered desegregation. In doing so, the country provided “tuition grants” to all students regardless of race, but none of the private schools in the county would admit African-American students. In 1964, the Supreme Courtdeclared this policy unconstitutional. Other southern states asserted the discredited theory of interposition to argue that they had the authority to ignore the Court’s ruling in Brownan argument which the Supreme Court rejected unanimously. In essence then, Newt Gingrich takes the same position on SCOTUS rulings he dislikes that southern segregationists did after Brown. They are as discredited now as they were then.

What’s most striking about Gingrich’s position on this issue, though, is the violence it does to the principle of Separation of Powers. Under our Constitution, the Executive. Legislative, and Judicial Branches are deemed co-equal within their own spheres of power. Gingrich, however, proposes ideas that would completely upend this system by drastically reducing judicial independence. Requiring Federal Judges to appear before Congress every time they issue a decision that some Committee Chairman decides they don’t would be an utter disaster. For one thing, it’s entirely likely that this Congressional power would quickly become subject to abuse as Congressmen and Senators use such hearings not only for political grandstanding but also to put pressure on judges to rule in a certain way in pending cases. Judges would quickly be faced with the dilemma of following the law as best they could and worrying about whether the ruling they issue means they end up on C-Span in three months time getting grilled by a Senator with dreams of running for President one day. It would be the death of judicial independence, and would be harm the rights of those seeking their day in Court who would find that there is an 800lb gorilla called the United States Congress looking over the Judge’s shoulder.

Another thought occurs, of course. If Gingrich believes that it would be proper for Congress to summon a Supreme Court Justice before it to explain themselves, then why wouldn’t it also be proper to summon the President himself before Congress to be questioned and forced to explain the basis for his decisions? What Gingrich is really talking about here is an idea that would set off a Constitutional crisis between the three branches of government.

You’d think a “small government” politician would support a strong and independent judiciary, wouldn’t you?

Update: when you’ve gone too far for Ann Coulter…

Update II: Harry’s Place compares Gingrich’s attitude toward the judiciary with that of Hugo Chavez.  That’s gotta hurt.