Following the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi after images of him engaging in an intimate encounter with a man were posted to the Internet, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has stated that he will introduce legislation requiring colleges and universities to develop anti-bullying and harassment policies.
As reported by Bruce Shipkowski and Bill Newill for the Associated Press (here, via Yahoo!):
Clementi, a promising violinist, jumped off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River on Sept. 22 after the intimate images of him with another man were webcast, and his body was identified days later.
Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, and another Rutgers freshman, Molly Wei, both 18, have been charged with invasion of privacy, and authorities are weighing whether bias crime charges should be added.
They further report that Lautenberg’s bill “would require colleges and universities that receive federal student aid” to develop anti-harassment policies and provide funds to establish prevention programs.
Promising and workable proposal
Senator Lautenberg’s proposed legislation holds genuine promise for addressing bullying and harassment on campuses, regardless of the reasons motivating the offending behaviors. Federal education law already requires colleges to protect students from sexual harassment. Bullying and harassment on other grounds could be integrated fairly seamlessly into existing preventive and responsive programs.
Application to the workplace?
The creation of a similar federal bill for workplaces would not be nearly as practicable, for reasons that would take a virtual legal treatise to explain. Nevertheless, one possible avenue would be invoking the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act to require employers to adopt workplace bullying prevention programs.
In the U.S., the federal Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act has the considerable disadvantages of weak fines and of not providing damages to injured parties. However, professor Susan Harthill of Florida Coastal School of Law (and a member of the New Workplace Institute advisory committee) has done important work analyzing how the OSH Act can be part of a multi-pronged approach to workplace bullying that includes collaboration between employment relations stakeholders. Despite its limitations, the OSH Act plays a useful worker safety oversight role, and Prof. Harthill makes a persuasive case that it should cover workplace bullying.
For an abstract of Susan Harthill’s University of Cincinnati Law Review article about using the OSH Act to address workplace bullying, go here.