The Long Half-Life of Half-Baked Laws

In the 1960s and early 1970s, a majority of states passed laws to crack down on civil rights and anti-war protesters.  And to be fair, lawmakers had reason to be alarmed: while most protests were peaceful, others were bloody and cruel. Police and soldiers had shot students to death and protesters had killed innocent bystanders with bombs. The headlines make today's protests look like cricket matches.

In South Carolina back then, a rural lawmaker proposed a bill to make it a crime to “disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school” or “to act in an obnoxious manner.” Representative F. Hall Yarborough acted after a series of nonviolent marches by black college students protesting segregation in his district. “I’m interested in keeping outside agitators off campus,” Yarborough told the Associated Press.

But what happened after the heat of the day had faded--after the Vietnam War had ended and Yarborough had retired? The laws were re-purposed for a new era.

Today, South Carolina's law against disturbing school is used to charge some 1,200 kids a year with disturbing school, punishable by up to 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine. These kids are not activists or "outside agitators," but students--accused of shoving, yelling, or cursing. The law is vague enough that it can be invoked for almost any form of misbehavior, even chewing gum, as one South Carolina Sheriff told me. The charge has been filed against kids as young as 7, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. And black students are nearly four times as likely as their white peers to be charged with disturbing school.

At least 22 other states also have their own laws against disturbing school, remnants, in most cases, of this long-ago legislative crack down. Today, these laws are used to send at least 10,000 kids into the criminal justice system each year, as I detailed in an Atlantic story last year. The consequences, in kids' alienation, parental despair, lost school days and court costs, are profound--and could not have been imagined by the lawmakers who introduced these bills. (Just being arrested, as criminologist Gary Sweeten has found, doubles a student's chance of dropping out of high school, even if the charge is dropped.)

This year, a South Carolina state senator named Mia McLeod has proposed reforming this old law so that it will no longer apply to students at their own school. Similar attempts have been made over the past 50 years, to no avail. McLeod's current bill, which would simply restore the law to its original purpose, targeting "outside agitators," has already run into opposition from certain prosecutors and police officers.

Meanwhile, at the very same time, lawmakers nationwide are introducing a new wave of bills for a new era of civil unrest, making eerily similar claims about the need to keep "outside agitators" out of their towns: “You now have a situation where you have full-time, quasi-professional agent-provocateurs that attempt to create public disorder,” Republican state senator John Kavanagh of Arizona said in support of bill to bring racketeering charges against certain protesters.

This kind of fear-mongering has a long tradition in America, with well-documented and shameful results. In 1970, President Richard Nixon’s Commission on Campus Unrest noted that more than 30 states had passed nearly 80 laws to counter protesters--laws that ranged from "the unnecessary and ill-directed to the purely vindictive.” The report called for lawmakers to bravely choose reconciliation over repression--in words that are as true today as they were 47 years ago: "Tolerance and understanding on all sides must re-emerge from the fundamental decency of Americans, from our shared aspirations as Americans, from our traditional tolerance of diversity, and from our common humanity."

EducationAmanda Ripley