The justice system increasingly is being asked to intercede in unpleasant social interactions involving young people that, once upon a time, used to get settled through a stern lecture and a parental conference.
In Pennsylvania, police charged a 15-year-old with the crime of “disorderly conduct” for secretly recording students bullying him during school, a case that prosecutors recently withdrew after a public outcry.
And in Iowa, an Allamakee County high school student was hauled into juvenile court and adjudicated “delinquent,” the equivalent to a conviction in adult criminal court, for insulting remarks (“you fat, skanky bitch”) that she yelled at a rival student while exiting the school bus.
In a victory for judicial restraint, the Iowa student’s case was overturned April 16 by the Iowa Court of Appeals, which reached the common-sense decision that not every upsetting remark can be criminalized as “harassment.”
In its ruling, the Court of Appeals found that Iowa’s criminal harassment statute — which outlaws speech that is intended, without legitimate purpose, to “threaten, intimidate or alarm” — cannot be violated by mere insults. Rather, the three-judge panel unanimously ruled, a criminal charge of harassment requires that the listener be placed in reasonable fear of injury.
Because the statute did not support a charge of delinquency, the judges did not find it necessary to address the more interesting question of whether the remarks were constitutionally protected speech under the First Amendment.
The case is especially noteworthy because so many state anti-bullying statutes place young people at risk of discipline, or even criminal prosecution, for speech that is “intimidating” or “alarming.” It’s important to give young people some margin of error for momentary temper outbursts (or for commentary that makes some of their readers upset) without fear of a life-altering brush with the law.