CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's top fundamentalist spokesman told legislators this week, in effect, that evangelical high school students should have "free speech" to call gay classmates wicked, sinful or depraved.
Jeremy Dys of the Family Policy Council testified that a new anti-bullying policy for the state's 55 county school systems is unfair to born-again students.
The policy forbids students to bully classmates for 13 conditions, including obesity, appearance, race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
Dys didn't mention the other conditions, so perhaps he doesn't think white students should have "free speech" to make racial slurs against blacks, or that slender ones should be entitled to torment overweight classmates, etc. However, fundamentalist students should be free to denounce gays, he contends.
Actually, this issue is a dilemma of democracy. The First Amendment in America's Bill of Rights lets everyone express their beliefs freely -- even vile, cruel beliefs. For example, Ku Klux Klansmen are free to march through Jewish neighborhoods and impugn Jews viciously.
But decent, caring, sensitive people have a moral obligation to oppose such behavior, and to criticize it. Free speech can be countered by more free speech.
Like most of America, West Virginia suffers from a much-discussed "epidemic of bullying." It's worst among middle school and high school youths, who haven't yet developed adult empathy and understanding. The smearing is expanded because some teens spread it online from computers at home. Horror stories of youths hounded into suicide are reported.
Several programs have been launched to reduce adolescent cruelty. In March, West Virginia became the seventh state to adopt the Jason Flatt Act -- named for a Tennessee teen who killed himself after extensive bullying -- which requires teachers to be trained to watch for suicide warning signs. This state has a Bully Awareness Week, a Bully-Free West Virginia program, a Bully Awareness Vigil, and the like.
The state Board of Education, along with its 13 types of forbidden behavior, launched "It Does Matter," a campaign that includes stickers on school restroom mirrors reminding students they may tell school counselors about unkindness inflicted upon them. They needn't suffer in isolation.
In October, the board reported that 57,000 incidents of aggression happened in state schools during the past year. Spokesman Liza Cordeiro said complaints from parents about mistreatment of their children are received every day of the school year.We hope conscientious West Virginians do their utmost to curb adolescent bullying. Fostering kindness is a noble goal. Such an attempt isn't helped by the fundamentalist demand for "free speech" to attack gays.