'Moron' Is Probably Out How 'bout 'Numbskull'?


Let's play an interesting new game which the Howard County Board of Education is developing.

Here's the basic rule: Students shall not "harass, defame, intimidate, threaten, use profanity toward or engage in an act of violence directed against an individual or identifiable individuals based on that person's race, color, creed, religion, physical or mental disability, national origin, gender or sexual orientation." Violators can be punished, suspended or expelled.

Here's the game: try to figure out what violates the rule and what doesn't.

Suppose you call someone "a pig"? It sounds bad, but it looks OK under the rule because the word doesn't seem to have anything to do with "race, color, creed, religion, physical or mental disability, national origin, gender or sexual orientation."

But what if a boy calls a girl "a pig"? Would it make any difference if he called her "a sow"? Bzzzzz!!! Off to the principal's office. Suppose he calls her "a feminist pig"? Is that an impermissible insult or only the crude expression of a legitimate criticism? The rule has an earnest First Amendment exception for the "mere expression of views, no matter how unpopular or offensive." If you think "feminist pig" should be outlawed, would you also punish a girl who calls a boy "a male chauvinist pig"? Suppose you think she's right on?

Notice that if the boy calls the girl "a socialist pig," he hasn't violated the rule, even if he then breaks his baseball bat over her head. The rule doesn't prohibit partisan name-calling or even political violence. If she responds, "You Southerners are all pigs," she's OK too, because regional prejudices are not prohibited. He can respond with "Shut up, you fat pig," because it's open season on personal appearance. "All you poor people are pigs." It's OK. The rule doesn't prohibit economic prejudice, or even class warfare.

Try some racial insults. Suppose a big white fifth-grader grabs a little black third-grader at recess, calls him a simple [expletive deleted], and punches him in the nose. The bully has harassed, defamed, intimidated, threatened, used profanity and engaged in an act of violence. But as long as his choice of an [expletive deleted] is racially neutral, his conduct isn't a violation. Maybe he just wanted to steal the kid's candy bar.

Suppose, however, the white bully was wearing a Ku Klux Klan T-shirt and had a swastika carved on his shaved head? That might be enough to prove that he was guilty of racial bias.

But suppose the black boy responds by calling the bully a "white racist honky" and hits him back? Bzzzzz???

If the bully really was a racist, then the black boy wouldn't have "defamed" him under the Howard County rule because what the black boy said was true. Read the three pages of proposed regulations.

"Defamation" is defined as "false and unprivileged statements or representations about an individual or identifiable group of individuals that harm the reputation of the person by demeaning him or her in the estimation of the community or deterring third persons from associating with or dealing with him or her."

The black boy's lawyer can clear up everything by explaining that his client's statement was not only not "false" but also not "unprivileged." That term, whatever it means, is right there in the fine print.

Actually, the black kid would be guilty. You have to read these regulations carefully. Even if he hadn't "defamed" the white skinhead, he still "harassed" him because the regulations don't exclude accurate epithets from the definition of "harassment." It is defined as "actions or statements directed at an individual or identifiable individuals which are intended or which a reasonable person would understand are intended to ridicule or to demean the other or subject the other to contempt."

The rules and regulations are complicated. Maybe the Howard County schools should print them on little plastic cards which the children can carry around in their back pockets. Then, when Johnny and Jerry get into a schoolyard fight, they can stop, pull out their cards and make sure they only hurl approved insults at each other before they start swinging.

Even the principal author of the rules and regulations doesn't understand them. The associate superintendent who drafted them told a reporter that calling a girl a disgusting name like "dyke" would only violate the rule if the girl was a lesbian. Otherwise, it wouldn't.

Bzzzzz!!! He should re-read his own definitions. If you call a girl a "dyke," you've "defamed" her if she isn't a lesbian and "harassed" her if she is. But then what happens if the girl is only 8 years old and hasn't yet figured out her sexual orientation?

Here's an extra-credit question: What happens if you call someone a "homosexual"? Are you "defaming" a straight person and "harassing" a gay one? Will the Howard County schools officially proclaim that "homosexual" is a term which "demeans" people? Or will they officially declare that it doesn't? Think of all the fun they'll have explaining either position to outraged parents and gay-activist groups.

These speech codes are springing up all over the country. Many of them are disingenuous attempts to impose a "politically correct" ideological orthodoxy. But this one seems genuinely well-intentioned. In the last year, Howard County has suffered a series of ugly racial incidents which people of good will want to stop.

In the pursuit of that worthy goal, however, the school board members have lost their way. Maybe they should simply prohibit all defamation, harassment, threats and violence, regardless of motivation. That would at least get them out of the business of drawing lines between insults that are permissible and those that aren't. But then Johnny would violate a serious disciplinary rule every time he calls Jerry a "dumb-dumb" or a "poop-head" at recess.

The school board should drop the whole idea. No one can draft a sensible code that distinguishes between words and ideas that should be expressed and those that shouldn't. Rules should only try to regulate conduct. Otherwise, they deserve ridicule and contempt themselves.

Tim Baker writes a column on issues of city and state.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad