Janesville council member Jens Jorgensen is either confused about the role of the city administration or is perfectly aware but thinks public displays of self-righteousness play well politically.
We suspect the latter.
Why else would Jorgensen accuse Assistant City Attorney Tim Wellnitz of making a “cowardly move” for Wellnitz doing his job, namely advising the council against pursuing a poorly constructed ordinance?
Far from being “cowardly,” Wellnitz did the council a favor in issuing a memo last week alerting the council to an overly vague provision within a proposed anti-bullying ordinance. Specifically, it would prohibit speech or actions intended to cause “emotional distress.”
Beyond the problematic language, the proposal is redundant with its references to harassment and assault, two behaviors already prohibited by city ordinances and state statutes.
The council would have been justified in scrapping the proposal Monday. Unfortunately, the council agreed to allow the ordinance to proceed to a Sept. 24 public hearing.
On this page, we’ve expressed concerns with the city’s lurch toward micromanaging people’s behaviors, especially in blurring the line between unpopular speech and illegal acts. The risk in trying to legislate bullying is in the temptation to encroach on the First Amendment.
We exaggerate only slightly in saying, under this proposed ordinance, Jorgensen could be fined for “bullying” Wellnitz. Perhaps Jorgensen would argue The Gazette should be fined for “bullying” him. At what point do disagreements of opinion become acts causing “emotional distress”?
Ultimately, this anti-bullying proposal isn’t about solving a problem. It’s about pleasing a vocal group of anti-bullying advocates, who have good intentions but too little regard for the constitutional concerns.
The truth is, the police already have the tools they need to address bullying. As Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore previously told The Gazette, his officers assigned to Janesville schools respond to reports of bullying. Because many types of bullying behaviors are already illegal, the anti-bullying proposal wouldn’t assist police in a meaningful way.
The only new tool the proposed ordinance gives officers is the ability to fine parents whose children bully. Whether punishing the parents would change a child’s behavior is debatable and not substantiated through research. And why only bullying? The council could examine fining parents for their children’s other criminal behaviors, such as theft and vandalism, but it’s not clear fines would foster better parenting.
Objectively evaluating this proposal requires council members to maintain level heads, but Jorgensen has a knack for the melodramatic, and he’s unlikely to offer sensible amendments during the Sept. 24 public hearing.
That’s why we must count on other council members to resist the urge to support feel-good legislation that won’t actually curb bullying but could threaten protected speech.