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Jail Time for Hurting Someone’s Feelings?

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It may fairly be said that there is a special place in hell for anyone who makes fun of a disabled person. Should there also be a place for him in jail?

Apparently so.

On November 28 a municipal judge in Canton, Ohio, sentenced William Bailey to 30 days in jail after Bailey pleaded no contest to criminal charges of disorderly conduct and aggravated menacing. According to a story on Fox News, “Bailey was caught on cell phone video at a school bus stop in October making fun of how [a] ten-year-old disabled girl walks.”

There were no allegations of physical or even verbal assault — the jail time is just for making fun of how she walks.

The girl, Hope Holcomb, suffers from cerebral palsy and claims she was regularly teased in this way by Bailey and his son. Apparently the families have been feuding for years.

Bailey said he was reacting to his son’s being teased, reported Trace Gallagher for Fox News. Hope’s family didn’t believe this, however, and the girl’s grandmother went down to the bus stop one afternoon to get video. The family then took the video to the police.

After the charges were filed, Bailey changed his story, claiming he was suffering from work-related injuries that caused him to walk the way he appeared to be on the video. Clearly the authorities didn’t believe him either, and they went ahead with his prosecution.

It’s hard to sympathize with William Bailey. It does appear from the video that he is mocking the young, disabled girl. And an apology issued by Bailey after his sentencing for his “inappropriate” and “immature” behavior certainly suggests guilt. Clearly, the guy is a jerk.

But should he have gone to jail?

Hope’s family was understandably disgusted by Bailey’s actions. Her father said, “It makes me sick too, to think that a grown man would tease a 10-year-old disabled girl that has never done a thing to any of them for no reason, and now she doesn’t want to get on the bus to go to school.”

Bullying is big news these days. It’s sad if young Hope no longer feels comfortable on her school bus, but there was no physical or implied threat here — just a nasty man who made fun of her. However uncomfortable she may feel, compare this to the thousands of kids who feel unsafe on their school bus or in school — every day. Public schools have done a miserable job of addressing parents’ concerns about bullying. William Bailey’s jail sentence seems to be more about this frustration than about criminal justice.

No doubt Fox News host Megyn Kelly and reporter Trace Gallagher were expressing their most righteous indignation when they used words like “disturbing” and “appalling” to describe Bailey’s conduct. Gallagher even seemed delighted when he said, “William Bailey will get a chance to … think about the limp for thirty days — in jail.” Kelly remarked that Bailey “is going to pay a price,” and concluded by saying, “Let’s hope his whole family learned a lesson on that one.”

Kelly and Gallagher need to get a grip here. No one was injured; no one was even threatened. No property was damaged. Was there really a need to involve the police and a criminal court in this family feud? Mean people are not automatically criminals.

And regardless of Bailey’s actions, journalistic standards still apply — Kelly’s and Gallagher’s comments are appropriate for an editorial, not a news report.

It’s fair to ask what possible ramifications may ensue from this precedent. For example, if criminal charges like “disorderly conduct” and “aggravated menacing” — sufficiently vague already — can now be stretched to include an act of insulting insensitivity, imagine the recourse available to a restaurateur who gets a bad review, a severely heckled comedian, or even a politician offended by protesters. Remember that a man has now been sent to jail just for hurting someone’s feelings.

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    Scott McPherson is policy adviser at The Future of Freedom Foundation. An advocate of the Free State Project, he lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.