When Does Bullying Prevention Cross the Line into Censorship?


Michigan University is taking a lot of flak for their latest bullying prevention campaign, which encourages students to use “inclusive language” and think about how their words may affect others. While it sounds good on the surface, many are upset over the list of words that the campaign urges students to remove from their language. Some go so far as to call this bullying prevention tactic a step towards an Orwellian form of censorship.

Related: Is Racist Bullying A Hate Crime?

Bullying Prevention or Censorship?

First, this isn’t so much about the Michigan University campaign as it is about the idea behind it. If you want to learn more about that campaign, I suggest checking out the article from The Daily Orange. It seems pretty balanced.

Now, onto the meat of the campaign: encouraging students to drop certain words from their vocabulary that may offend others. Basically, the bullying prevention initiative calls on students to think about how certain words can really hurt other students. These words include truly tactless and hurtful terms like “retarded” and “that’s so gay,” along with eyebrow raisers like “that test raped me.” Huh? I didn’t even know that was a term.

Then there are terms like “I want to die,” as in “oh my gods, I can’t believe he saw me without my makeup on! I totally want to die!” These aren’t the only phrases or words on the list, but they give you an overall picture. Some are obviously hurtful. Some, you have to think about.

“I want to die” in on the list because it may hurt the feelings of someone who survived a suicide attempt. As that someone (I had a rough time during my teen years), I can honestly say I wouldn’t think that you were mocking me or not considering my feelings if you uttered those words in embarrassment. I’d just think you were melodramatic.

The debate rages over whether the Inclusive Language Campaign is simply a way to help prevent bullying or an infringement on freedom of speech. They’re not punishing students who don’t exclude their suggested words or praising those who do with better grades. It’s primarily a poster-driven campaign. A little on the Orwellian side, yes. So far, though, it’s not a regulation, just a suggestion. So technically, it’s not yet crossing the line into censorship.

My biggest issue with the campaign is that I just don’t think it’s going to be all that effective, especially in a college setting. I can see something like this working better in an elementary school, although maybe not with those exact words! In a high school or college setting, though, it quickly becomes a joke. Or worse. Plus, the University of Michigan Inclusive Language Campaign is geared towards simply wiping out words, not intentions. Intentions hurt far more than someone’s ignorant use of an outdated or offensive word.

Spread Awareness In Style With Anti-Bullying Jewelry

Honestly, the money they spent on this campaign (and based on internet chatter, it was a lot), could have been better spent on creating more multicultural activities or other opportunities for students of different backgrounds to get to know each other. That’s really the only way to bring people together and get them to really think about the feelings of others.

As for when bullying prevention crosses the line into censorship, I strongly believe that everyone has a right to freedom of speech, even if what they say offends me. If your right to say horrible things is taken from you, that’s censorship. However, when those horrible words cross the line into harassment, slander or threats, you are no longer protected and all bets are off. Bullying prevention should focus on protecting kids (and adults) against those types of speech. As for those who do feel the U of M campaign is crossing the line into censorship, I can point out dozens (hundreds, perhaps) of other actual government-sanctioned forms of censorship happening around the world against which our time would be better spent fighting.

What do you think? At what point does bullying prevention cross the line into censorship? At what point should we start to be concerned? Feel free to tell me I’m wrong in the comments if you disagree! Respectfully, of course, this is a family site!

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18 thoughts on “When Does Bullying Prevention Cross the Line into Censorship?”

  1. My favorite bit from this article is where you mention “…the University of Michigan Inclusive Language Campaign is geared towards simply wiping out words, not intentions. Intentions hurt far more than someone’s ignorant use of an outdated or offensive word.” I couldn’t agree more. So many times we try to use band-aids to fix deep issues. We need to get at the root of the problem. Like a weed, until the roots are pulled, problems will continue to spring up. I think the people at The University of Michigan have the right heart, but simply cutting out words won’t help, it will only cause more frustration. Your idea to hold more activities that guide students towards understanding and kindness would be much more useful!

  2. In my personal corner of the Internet, I lead a guild in World of Warcraft. Our #1 rule is to “be excellent to each other.” There are three terms that are absolutely banned from guild conversation, whether in voice or text chat: gay and retarded unless used in a non-derogatory sense, and rape used flippantly. The word rape is rampantly misused among male gamers to describe situations in which their characters get killed or beaten by either another player or an NPC. I would be quite content if these uses of these words were wiped clean from the entire English language because of how emotionally charged they are for some people.

    1. I absolutely LOVE that rule, “be excellent to each other.” That is a fabulous way to sum it all up and encourage positivity. I think if everyone lived by that motto, we’d have so many less problems in the world.

  3. Wow, what an important subject to speak up on! My son had a problem in School earlier this year with bullying. We took it to the Principle and it was handled very well. It always helps when the School is very involved and squashes any problem right away

  4. This is when I’m reminded of something I’ve heard over the years. A person’s right to free speech doesn’t trump another person’s right to be treated equitably. I think that’s very true in this situation.

  5. I believe people should be able to say what they want. Yes, it is important to think of others, but if we all walk on egg shells how will those people who may ‘get hurt’ react in the real world, it would be like sheltering them only to have them slapped in the face in reality. I sometimes think people need to toughen up. (sorry, not trying to be harsh)

    1. I understand what you are saying, especially since the article itself stems from an issue on a college campus. That’s as close to the real world as young adults get.

  6. I think that anything causing emotional trauma should absolutely be taken off the table. Period. People have to remember, however, that emotional trauma is NOT the same as being offended by something!

    1. While I want to agree with you because the spirit of the idea is good, emotional trauma comes in so many different forms. I was emotionally traumatized by an incident at a hospital during a routine procedure. Certain terms related to that incident cause me to panic immediately. I can’t expect the rest of the world around me to never mention that hospital or the procedure, though. If the INTENT of their mentioning, though, is to add to the trauma, then yes, I can expect them to keep quiet or stay away from me. Does that make sense? To me, intent is everything.

  7. This goes back to the old saying “if you have nothing nice to say”. People always have opinions which is ok but when it hurts others, I think they should be kept to themselves. It’s always easier for people to focus on the flaws of others than to look in the mirror. So sad!

    1. I totally agree! I do give incredible amount of points though towards any campaign, or policies put in place to try and help and bring awareness to the bullying problems.

  8. I agree with you 100%. There are always words and ideas that will offend you, however, they are not bullying. Bullying is when people use words and actions to cause either physical or emotional harm to you. Those should not be tolerated.

  9. Robin (Masshole Mommy)

    I think people should be free to say what they want, but sometimes certain things shouldn’t be said. it should be common sense, though, not censorship.

    1. Exactly. I think that each and every one of us should have enough common sense to “self-censor.” Use that little filter in our brains that allows us to think “yes, I have A RIGHT to say this, but is it RIGHT to say it?”

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