The Michigan Senate has voted unanimously
to pass a piece of anti-hazing legislation, a proposal that seeks
to criminalize the practice, calling for severe punishments for any
violators. Specifically, offenders can be charged with anywhere
from 90 days to 15 years in prison — depending on the gravity
of the incident. The legislation defines “hazing” as
any act that would jeopardize someone’s physical or mental
health as part of determining membership in a group. Forced
drinking, drills and sleep deprivation are all cited as examples of
hazing that could be considered grounds for prosecution. Despite
the law’s intentions to discourage a deplorable social
custom, in its application, the bill risks excessive
overbreadth.

Beth Dykstra

Setting aside the legislation’s inherent conflict with
foundational conceptions of individual autonomy embedded in the
U.S. Criminal Justice Code, on its face, the legislation is a
statutory catastrophe. Most notably, the legislation provides an
exceedingly vague criterion for what constitutes hazing. By simply
classifying the term within the context of group membership
determinations, the law fails to address critical questions of
external pressure.

Assuming some sort of physical or mental injury is incurred upon
a prospective group member, is it not relevant how much outside
influence was placed on the individual in the first place? The
anti-hazing statute does not even attempt to distinguish a case in
which a student becomes sleep-deprived as a result of mandatory
late-night calisthenics for his pledge term, from a case in which a
student loses too much sleep after joining a student group that
encourages new members to make extra efforts to show their
dedication. In both these cases, the student suffered
“injury” as a result of group membership activities.
Should we really be relying on the judicial system to arbitrarily
muddle through the grey areas between the two hypothetical
extremes?

Even if the courts eventually set a coherent precedent for what
constitutes the act of hazing itself, it would not disentangle the
laughable ambiguities of the bill’s second premise —
resultant “injury.” Even the hardliners out there who
wholeheartedly endorse sending a teenager to prison for four months
because he made someone lose too much sleep should pause over the
law’s mental health clause. Is it even within our faculties
to comprehend how many different initiation practices could be
construed to have direct or even incidental negative consequences
on someone’s mental health? Most plausibly, this legislation
would be most activated by worried, overbearing parents and kids
with axes to grind against particular student organizations.

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