Seems it all started when a New Jersey sixth-grader was chatting with a classmate and the subject of vegetarianism came up.

One student (referred to as C.C. in legal documents) made no bones about where he was coming from, telling his classmate (referred to as K.S.) that “it’s not good to not eat meat” and that “he should eat meat because he’d be smarter and have bigger brains” — and the coup de grace: “Vegetarians are idiots.”

Image source: Shutterstock

Image source: Shutterstock

C.C.’s punishment was “five (5) lunch-time detentions” during which he had the “opportunity to speak with staff about his actions, with an intention of preventing future instances of such conduct,” the Washington Post reported.

But in addition, the Montgomery Township school board claimed that C.C. committed “harassment, intimidation, or bullying” of a classmate, the Post reported, adding that C.C. — according to an anti-bullying specialist — characterized K.S.’s response to his comments as amusing.

Soon, the Post reported, an administrative judge entered the fray (C.C. v. Board of Ed., 2016 WL 958848):

The District concluded that C.C. made verbal communications that were reasonably perceived as being motivated by a distinguishing characteristic between the two boys, namely vegetarianism, which substantially interfered with the rights of K.S. and had the effect of insulting or demeaning him.

The Post said the judge referred to New Jersey’s anti-bullying law — noted on the school district’s website — which states:

“Harassment, intimidation or bullying” means any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents, that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory disability, or by any other distinguishing characteristic, that takes place on school property, at any school-sponsored function, on a school bus, or off school grounds as provided for in section 16 of P.L.2010, c.122 (C.18A:37-15.3), that substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students and that:

(a) a reasonable person should know, under the circumstances, will have the effect of physically or emotionally harming a student or damaging the student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm to his person or damage to his property;

(b) has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students; or

(c) creates a hostile educational environment for the student by interfering with a student’s education or by severely or pervasively causing physical or emotional harm to the student.

The judge, the Post reported, sided with the school district last week, ruling that C.C.’s comments “are reasonably perceived to be motivated by the distinguishing characteristic of K.S. being a vegetarian.”

The author of the Post’s article — Eugene Volokh, who teaches at UCLA School of Law — noted that labels like “harassment,” “intimidation” and “bullying” can amount to “much broader consequences” and that once the law defines certain speech with such labels, “it’s easy for these labels to be applied in other areas as well, especially because the labels are so ill-defined and potentially so broad.”

(H/T: The College Fix)