WASHINGTON -- Heather Wilson, a Republican running for U.S. Senate in New Mexico, came out against Sen. Al Franken's (D-Minn.) anti-LGBT bullying legislation last week, claiming it would criminalize teasing and "punish children."
Last year, Franken introduced SB 555, known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act. Right now, federal civil rights laws make clear it is illegal to discriminate against individuals based on their race, color, sex, religion, disability and national origin. Franken's bill would expand those categories to prohibit discrimination and bullying in public schools based on sexual orientation or gender identity as well.
Wilson's comments in opposition to the bill came during an April 12 debate with her primary opponent in the Senate race, Greg Sowards. They were caught on video by the Democratic group American Bridge. Wilson claimed that SB 555 would "criminalize" instances in which one child makes fun of another for having a "low voice," and that it would outlaw anyone expressing an opinion "with respect to homosexuality in the schools" (emphasis added):
It is a act that would criminalize harassment or bullying in schools of children who are gay or who -- it criminalizes bullying. It basically makes federal funding dependent on school board policies that will not tolerate bullying of people based on their sexual orientation or, you know, even when kids are below puberty.
I mean if somebody gets bullied for having, gosh a low voice -- that's never happened to me. ... But I think one of the things why I don't support the act is because I think it's misplaced. They are things I'm willing to tolerate that I'm not willing to approve.
With respect to this particular agenda we have to recognize as parents that children tease each other because you're short or you're tall or you're a redhead or because you're ugly or because you're smart or because you're dumb or all kinds of differences and as parents we have to deal with that and strengthen our children to be comfortable with themselves and also to show empathy and acceptance towards others, but that particular act is so broad it would actually punish children and say that it's prohibited to express an opinion with respect to homosexuality in the schools. I just think that's wrong and it's a violation of the First Amendment.
Wilson's characterization of SB 555 is inaccurate in several ways. First of all, it would not "criminalize" teasing.
"If you create a crime [in a law], you need to put words in the law like 'sentencing' or 'imprisoned,'" explained a Senate staffer who declined to be named to speak openly. "[The law] is just not creating any crimes. That's just incorrect."
It's also not banning teasing between students. It prohibits discrimination by public schools, and it makes sure a school responds to cases of pervasive harassment that interfere with a child's education.
SB 555 is modeled on existing civil rights laws -- such as Title VI and Title IX -- that already prohibit discrimination based on certain classifications. This legislation would simply extend those protections to discrimination that occurs based on sexual orientation and gender identity, so it seems unlikely that Franken's bill would count as unconstitutional and violate the First Amendment. In fact, to safeguard against such a charge, Section 9(b) of SB 555 says, "Nothing in this Act shall be construed to alter legal standards regarding, or affect the rights available to individuals or groups under...the First Amendment."
In the past few years, there have been a rash of suicides by teenagers who have been bullied for being gay or perceived as gay. In 2009, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network surveyed 7,261 middle and high school students and "found that at school nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year and nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. Nearly a third of LGBT students skipped at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns."
Wilson's office did not return a request for comment.
A former congresswoman, Wilson has a big lead on Sowards in the polls and is expected to win her party's U.S. Senate primary. Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) is leading in the Democratic primary.