Thursday, May 13, 2010

An essay on the proper time to restrict rights

Every once in awhile, I like to blog on non-specific subjects -- not something that's necessarily current events, but rather an abstract thought or theory that has been running in my head for the past couple of days.

With that in mind, I want to talk about rights.

Everyone loves rights. We all know them (or at least pretend to): most of our rights are protected in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, aptly titled the Bill of Rights. These rights include various protections that are granted to the people not by the government but by a common creator (whether you believe that to be a specific deity or nature itself is up to you) that has made all men and women equals. There are no kings, nor classes of people, who are deemed more worthy of protection in terms of rights protected by the government (at least in theory).

It is government's role not to create rights for its citizens but rather to protect the rights entrusted to them through a shared creator. But when we think about rights, we tend to ponder about things that cannot be restricted by government's hands. I cannot justly be restricted (again, in theory) by the government with regards to things I wish to speak out about, especially if it pertains to political matters. Political speech is a protected right, one that is granted to everyone in this country regardless of political beliefs.

However, the right to speech is not as absolute as most people might think -- and while many may believe that's a terrible thing, it's actually more beneficial this way. A person's right to speech may interfere with the livelihood of others, and when that happens it should not be protected. The classic example offered by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is screaming "FIRE" in a crowded theater when you know that no such fire exists. The impending stampede is sure to cause injury, and you would be held responsible for whatever happened -- you can't use your First Amendment rights to defend you in this instance. Other examples exist as well. For instance, you cannot expect free speech rights to protect you if you divulge state secrets to foreign enemies. Your speech here can cause harm to others, possibly to millions if you share the right secrets. In that vein, your rights are trumped by the rights of others when you use them to knowingly cause harm.

HOWEVER, with that said, restrictions to rights should always be done in a cautious way, with the burden of proof resting on the government's shoulders. Indeed, in the case where Holmes makes his famous litmus test for restrictions on speech rights, the unanimous Court upheld the conviction of an anti-war protester who was distributing literature encouraging young men to stay out of the First Great War. Such speech rights in this instance should be protected, and the Supreme Court was acting in an unjust manner in suppressing his freedoms.

There is a stark difference in the use of rights to protest a war, encouraging others to do so as well, and the abuse of rights in aiding our enemies directly through disseminating state secrets. One is encouraging political behavior to change a policy that one disagrees with while the other is potentially causing great harm to the people of the nation.

Other rights are certainly within the realm of being restricted, such as gun rights. We can determine, for example, that violent criminals should have strong restrictions on what weapons they can or can't own, or that certain weapons shouldn't be distributed at all. A restriction on the amount of explosive material a person can own certainly violates the letter of the Second Amendment, but not its spirit. After all, a free people wouldn't feel very free knowing their neighbors are carrying nuclear arsenal -- an extreme example to be sure, but one that needs to be considered if we are to say the Second Amendment is absolute.

It may seem somewhat strange to hear me say -- I'm pretty much advocating the idea that there are restrictions to our freedoms. But my caveat to that is that they should be very rarely done, that the burden of proof is on the government to show that another person's life is endangered by the free exercise of a certain right by a certain person or people. My right to speech isn't protected if it's going to cause a number of people to die, and my right to bear arms isn't protected if the weapon I'm going to own's sole purpose is to make a giant crater in the ground a near-mile wide.

But it's been my opinion that the restrictions made on speech have been largely done unjustly. The "free speech" zones at political rallies and conventions in recent years comes to mind when I think about speech rights wrongly restricted. Added to that, the speech rights granted to Westboro Baptist Church members who protest funerals of fallen soldiers with signs like "GOD HATES FAGS" is wrong in my view -- the rights granted here cause enormous emotional duress to those participating in the funerals.

We shouldn't jump the gun and justify every restriction with a loose interpretation of why we're trying to protect people. Saying a man who is protesting a war is impeding the war effort is an unjust suppression. Telling a man he can't own a single handgun in his own home is an unjust suppression. And telling U.S. citizens that their Miranda rights don't exist because we now consider them "enemy combatants" is an unjust suppression.

Truth be told, there does exist certain times when rights need to be suppressed; but rights should only be restricted when there is a direct threat to another person's way of life. My rights end when my fist reaches your nose -- literally and figuratively. We need to remember to fight restrictions to rights when they're unjust, even if we find ourselves content with the outcome of those restrictions. For next time, we may not be so lucky, and we may find ourselves being the ones whose rights are being wrongly suppressed -- and who will come to our aid then?

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