Legislature’s Fighting Words Bill debated and vetoed



The Fighting Words Bill would have attempted to eliminate use of hate speech. It was vetoed due to concern around the difficulty defining what constituted hate speech.

Becky Perelman, Sports Writing Editor

Fighting words were first defined by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1942 as words that, “by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.”

The Brookline High School Student Handbook does not address the subject. Dean of Students Melanee Alexander drafted the Fighting Words Bill in response to the videos that emerged on Nov. 29 containing a racial epithet and the ensuing protests.

Alexander’s Fighting Words Bill stated that “disparaging words or terms that refer, directly or indirectly, to another’s race, ethnicity, cultural background, sexuality, sexual preference, gender identity, religious background, physical or mental disability, no matter who uses such language, do not reflect the culture of Brookline High School and are therefore prohibited.”

In November, Student Legislature originally voted to approve the Fighting Words Bill and send it to Headmaster Anthony Meyer. Meyer vetoed it on Nov. 30, 2017. Eventually, after further conversation and discussion with students, Legislature came to agree that it was difficult to clearly define hate speech and delegate punishments.

In an email, Meyer explained that he worried the bill would target students of color who use this language amongst themselves.

I did veto this BHS Legislature bill. I both wanted to take more time to understand the process and the bill. I was particularly concerned about the potential for a disproportionate effect on students of color, something student members of Legislature raised in the discussion of this well-intentioned bill,” Meyer wrote.

When writing the bill, Alexander said she had two goals in mind: to call attention to the need for discussion and to address the fact that fighting words are a violation of civil rights. Social studies teacher and Legislature liaison Jen Martin said that the handbook does not currently address harassment based on racial identity.

“The goal is to specifically state in the handbook that we don’t tolerate hate speech,” Martin said. “Right now, we have something in the handbook that specifically says that you can’t sexually harass someone, but it doesn’t say that you can’t harass them for their racial identity. You could say it’s bullying, but if you look at the classic definition of bullying, it’s harassment over time.”

Junior William McCormick, co-chair of Student Council and a member of Legislature, said why some people, especially teachers, wanted the bill to pass.  

“I think there are a lot of teachers who view the N-word as not appropriate for school. You wouldn’t use it at a dinner table so you wouldn’t use it in a learning place,” McCormick said.

According to senior Anthony Saunders, who is on both Legislature and Student Council, the students had very little time to discuss the bill and decide on whether or not it was a good idea, as Legislature only meets twice a month for 40 minutes during X-block.

“I wish we’d had more time to discuss. My first thought was that it seems that the bill will target students of color and could just widen the achievement gap at this school. I voted no for letting it be voted on, and then I voted no on letting it be passed up to Mr. Meyer,” Saunders said.

Saunders’ main worry with the bill was the amount of power it gave to teachers and its potential to disproportionally affect certain groups

“You hear more students of color use the N-word in a more mutual way; it’s just how they speak to each other, how they greet each other,” Saunders said. “By giving the teachers the power to say that these students are misusing the word, those students get investigated. It’s a whole process that can lead down the wrong path.”

According to Martin, some of the students on Legislature voted for the bill even though they thought it needed work because they wanted to start a dialogue about race and racism with the administration. She said that although the bill had good intentions, it had issues.

“I just hate to put it into writing like that, and for it to have a potential negative impact, disproportionately on actually oppressed groups. I’m interested in seeing what a better bill would look like,” Martin said.

After Meyer vetoed the bill, Martin asked the members of student council to speak to 10 other students each in order to gain a better understanding of how the student body felt about the bill.

According to senior Phil Dorfman, the student chair of Legislature and co-chair of Student Council, he and McCormick met with students in the African-American and Latino Scholars Program to talk about the bill.

“We talked about the possibility of a hate speech bill, and in general it seemed like people did not like it. We got a lot of ideas for what a hate speech bill could have been or what it needed to do to protect minority students around the school,” Dorfman said.

The next steps for the bill are unclear. According to Alexander, she has the opportunity to rewrite it and bring it to Legislature again.

As for Legislature, Dorfman said that it is no longer working on the original bill and that it has been tabled.

Alexander said there is still a lot of work to be done.

“I think there is a lot that needs to happen in terms of our culture and in terms of making sure that our school is truly inclusive and respects all individuals,” Alexander said. “There is a lot of education to be done on the part of teachers as well as students. There’s sort of this process of like ‘What do we, as a school, stand for?’ We have to figure that out.”