SKILLMAN, N.J. – A New Jersey sixth-grader was sentenced to five lunch-time detentions after school officials allege he harassed a vegetarian classmate by telling the student “he should eat meat because he’d be smarter and have bigger brains.”

Michelle Obama student vegetableThe Board of Education of the Township of Montgomery concluded the comment and others amounted to “harassment, intimidation or bullying” and an administrative law judge backed the school district in a decision last week, The Washington Post reports.

The student, identified as “C.C.” in court records made the comments to a vegetarian classmate identified as “K.S.”

“The (Board) report found that C.C. told K.S. that ‘It’s not good to not eat meat,’ and ‘he should eat meat because he’d be smarter and have bigger brains,’” according to records cited by the Post. “C.C. himself wrote that he told K.S. that ‘vegetarians are idiots.’ The anti-bullying specialist found that C.C. stated that K.S.’s response to his comments was amusing to him.”

In the court’s decision on C.C. v. Board of Ed., the judge wrote that “the District concluded that C.C. made verbal communications that were reasonably perceived as being motivated by a distinguishing characteristic between the two boys, namely vegetarianism, which substantially interfered with the rights of K.S. and had the effect of insulting or demeaning him …,” the Post reports.

“ … In this case, C.C. admitted to making comments to K.S. regarding his decision to not eat meat,” the judge wrote, pointing to the boy’s specific comments. “… I CONCLUDE that those comments are reasonably perceived to be motivated by the distinguishing characteristic of K.S. being vegetarian.”

Post columnist Eugene Volokh, a religious freedom and First Amendment law professor at UCLA School of Law, weighed in on what the ruling means in the broader context of school and anti-harassment policies.

Volokh wrote:

Note that the decision didn’t single out the nonsubstantive insult — “vegetarians are idiots” — as being the punishable statement. Instead, the decision treated this statement as on par with polite factual and normative claims (whether accurate or not), such as “it’s not good to not eat meat” and “[you] should eat meat because [you]’d be smarter and have bigger brains,” would be “harassment, intimidation, or bullying,” presumably because they can also be “insulting or demeaning.”

The punishment here was modest: “five (5) lunch-time detentions” — during which C.C. “was given the opportunity to speak with staff about his actions, with an intention of preventing future instances of such conduct” — and “no other disciplinary consequences.” But the labels “harassment,” “intimidation,” and “bullying” (as opposed to, say, “rudeness” or “unkindness” or “personal insults”) can often have much broader consequences, as I’ve chronicled in many past posts. And once the law calls such speech “harassment,” “intimidation” or “bullying” in one area, it’s easy for these labels to be applied in other areas as well, especially because the labels are so ill-defined and potentially so broad.