Hall monitors and the thought police

Orange County Register, June 4, 2000

The thought police soon could be haunting the halls of California public schools if Assembly Bill 1785, by Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, becomes law. Under the guise of banning `hate violence,` it would have the effect of restricting what students say and think, subjecting offenders to psychological counseling.

Students are right to expect that school life should not pose a danger to them - but Mr. Villaraigosa's remedy will do more harm than good.

Ironically, Mr. Villaraigosa, who is expected to run for L.A. mayor next year, is a former vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, a usually reliable defender of free speech. The proposed bill bans any `hate motivated incident,` which it defines as `an act or attempted act which constitutes an expression of hostility against a person or property or institution because of the victim's real or perceived race, religion, disability, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation. This may include using bigoted insults, taunts, or slurs, distributing or posting hate group literature or posters, defacing, removing, or destroying posted materials or announcements, posting or circulating demeaning jokes or leaflets.` Even those who aren't proven to have committed one of these acts, but are suspected of doing so, would be considered `at-risk.` School staff would be trained to look for what seems to be `potentially prejudicial and discriminatory behavior.`

That means even a student merely thought to be harboring incorrect beliefs, but who may not actually hold them, could be tagged.

The law would establish `an in-service training program for school staff to learn to identify at-risk pupils, to communicate effectively with those pupils, and to refer those pupils to appropriate counseling.` The state Board of Education would establish further guidelines to `include procedures for preventing and responding to acts of hate violence.` Critics fear this law would actually worsen relations among groups and, at its core, would threaten free speech. `I question the constitutionality of the bill,` Natalie Williams told us; she's vice president of the Capitol Resource Institute, a conservative policy group in Sacramento. For instance, `it could censor religious beliefs that could be seen as demeaning about homosexuals.` Pointing to Bible passages on homosexuality, she said, `If that insulted someone, it could be considered a hate-motivated incident.'

The simple truth is that if a student reports threats, intimidation or other harassing behavior directed at him or her - no matter the topic - public school officials should respond and there should be consequences and punishment for wrongdoers.

Certainly physically abusive or violent behavior should be checked; laws already exist for that.

But Mr. Villaraigosa is trying to set boundaries on specific topics in ways that could lead to compromising the First Amendment and the California Constitution, both of which guarantee free speech - to all on every subject. . And, he expects teachers to become the thought and conversation monitors of their students. That's not their job and shouldn't be.

AB 1785 passed the Assembly on May 31 and now is in the Senate Rules Committee. The full Senate should defeat this bill.