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Town ordinance against bullying runs into a snag: Free speech rights

January 3, 2011

Is anti-bullying really anti-free speech? Let us know what you think. Email jgibbs@ricentral.com

Concerns about free speech in a proposed ordinance designed to resolve concerns about bullying, both of the in-person and online kind, prompted the Town Council to put the measure on hold Monday night.

The ordinance, proposed by Police Chief Thomas C. Coyle and Substance Abuse Prevention Coordinator Bob Houghtaling, seeks to define the act and outlines sanctions for offenders, including several forms of community service, counseling and intervention.
The council, which was to vote on first reading and then schedule a public hearing at its next regularly scheduled meeting Feb. 14, instead tabled the ordinance after councilors Michael S. Kiernan and Jeffrey B, Cianciolo, both lawyers, raised legal and free speech concerns.
Kiernan questioned whether such an ordinance is even necessary.
“It doesn’t work constitutionally. They had the right idea to protect kids, but you can’t stifle speech,” he said.
After the meeting, while talking with reporters, Kiernan pulled out a copy of the ordinance and circled the word “emotional” on the first line of the definitions: “Causes physical or emotional harm to the victim or damage to the victim’s property.”
“You’re opening a Pandora’s box here,” he said. “You can’t use government to solve every problem, especially this one. You have to start with the parents.”
Cianciolo criticized the wording of the ordinance, which he felt needed considerable redrafting.
“As written, it’s not a cohesive ordinance. I don’t think it reads well,” he said.
Council President Michael B. Isaacs, also a lawyer, directed Town Solicitor Peter Clarkin to work on a new draft with Coyle and Houghtaling before giving the ordinance another look.
?We want to address potential constitutional questions and look at what exists in state law and in other communities. (Bullying is) a growing issue and something we have to do something about, but we want to do it in a way that would withstand a legal challenge,” he said.
Coyle and Houghtaling said they were not alarmed by the council’s failure to grant first passage, but welcomed any input that could improve the ordinance.
“We knew the free speech issue was going to be the crux of the whole thing. My intent was to get this forward, and I know there’sd a lot of discussion beforehand,” he said.
Houghtaling said he anticipated there would changes in language and wording between first draft and a final version.
“The proposed ordinance isn’t any one person’s ordinance. It’s important that members of the community are able to chip in to make the ordinance better,” he said.
The ordinance also defines bullying as any situation that creates fear or harm, creates a hostile environment, or infringes on the target’s rights.
Cyberbullying is defined as the distribution of information that could harm the target, or the creation of a false Web page or identity that is intended to false depict the victim.
“We want to create a dynamic where we’re able to intervene and react in proactive fashion,” said Houghtaling, adding that the sanctions are designed to educate the accused rather than be punitive.

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