Bullying and Public Comment

There has been a fair bit of discussion lately, some of it heated, about proposed changes to the school board meeting public comment policy around here. (See also great discussion from Nick Johnson–including a reminder about the purposes of school board meetings–and from Mary Murphy).

I am interested in the comments I have seen in support of the policy change that seem to focus largely on the comfort of listeners, particularly listeners who are also potential speakers. Some sample Facebook comments:

Moderation is necessary and it is important to ensure an atmosphere that is free of bullying at board meeting to make sure all voices are heard.

Whether its catcalls or thunderous applause, it comes down to attempts to intimidate people with opposing views, and its gotten steadily worse over the past year.

As it happens, I think that if you are not reading Ken White over at Popehat, particularly on free speech and bullying, you are missing out. So, if you are still wondering why some people might object to at least some parts of the proposed public comment policy, I am going to link to two posts that I think are particularly good, arguably relevant, and absolutely worth clicking the links to read in full:

Ken White on what “bullying” means and doesn’t mean:

But not everything is bullying, unless we’re going to stretch that word to mean any expression we don’t like, any social pressure we disagree with, any sharp attack on a person or position. I don’t believe that fighting against social and political and legal positions we don’t like is bullying. I don’t believe that challenging and questioning and criticizing claims or stances or doctrines is bullying. I don’t believe that ridicule or satire or rough language directed at people who choose to enter a debate is (usually) bullying.

Ken White goes on to suggest we use different words for people who go too far in public debates (and seriously, click on the link and read the whole post):

Is there scary behavior we should condemn in the realm of political and social advocacy? Sure. There are some deal-breakingly-crazy stalkers out there who mindlessly pursue people who disagree with them. But a better term for them might be “crazy stalkers,” not “bullies.”

I approve of protecting the weak from the strong. I approve of calling out people who pick on strangers who are minding their own business and who didn’t enter a debate. But I don’t like the unprincipled overuse of “bullying” for several reasons. I don’t like it because it shifts focus from issues to personalities. I don’t like it because it changes our focus from substance to quarrels over substance. I don’t like it because I think it encourages the trend of feckless, unconstitutional speech codes, and encourages the state to apply those codes too broadly. (Links in original removed.)

In another post (also absolutely worth reading in full), Ken White criticizes equating criticism with bullying, among other things:

All of this silly rhetoric is itself free speech, of course. But it’s not harmless speech. It’s pernicious. Conflating speech and violence encourages citizens to think that speech should be controlled like violence. That’s not a abstract danger. It’s real.