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Well-meaning coercion is sign of our times

October 15, 2002

If you think, as I do, that we are living in the golden age of dubious legal coercion, there is plenty of evidence to support your view.Take the anti-smoking movement. After prohibiting most indoor smoking, the activists noticed that people were still trying to smoke outdoors. So various communities banned lighting up in outdoor movie lines, on beaches, in parks, near a school or in any publicly owned space. Alameda County, California, forbids smoking within 15 feet of any window or doorway of any building. Until it became a laughingstock, Maryland’s Montgomery County planned to ban smoking even in the smokers’ own homes if neighbors were offended.Reaching into homes intrigues a lot of the new prohibitionists. A New York judge ruled that a divorced woman could not smoke in her own home when her 13-year-old son came to visit. The woman smoked only in her bathroom, but that wasn’t good enough for the judge.

Bias cases are another area where the state sometimes tries to regulate the home. In Madison, Wis., a woman was found guilty of refusing to accept a lesbian housemate in a room she rented out. This was a bad ruling, probably unconstitutional too, but the woman lost and had to pay $23,000 in court costs.

Local District C of the Los Angeles school system offers another example of high-minded but foolish coercion: Students are not allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies if they do not agree to go on to college, a trade school, an internship or the military. The district is apparently unable to make a distinction between encouraging college attendance and compelling it.

Scan the newspapers and you will find many other examples of creative coercion. California just passed a law forcing the state’s graduate medical students to undergo abortion training, whether they are interested in it or not. There is a narrow opt-out for conscientious objectors, but none for religious hospitals. They will have to “ensure” that medical personnel get abortion training elsewhere.

The great frontier of do-good coercion is the effort to control speech. The European Union intends to ban “racism and xenophobia,” “public insults” of minority groups and other materials it finds offensive. The word “racist” could be broadly defined as an aversion to any ethnic group. If so, the European Union would be creating its first thought crimes.

Here’s an example of how speech might be punished: An Exeter man was convicted of insulting a Muslim under England’s new “Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act,” which bans religious hatred. He had denounced Muslims in an argument with a Muslim college student, who, he said, declared that Osama bin Laden is a great man and that “all Americans deserved to die.” The student admitted that he “could have said” these things, but he wasn’t charged.

In Paris, the famous Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci is currently on trial for inciting racial hatred in passages of her new novel that disparage Islam. A French novelist is also on trial for offending Muslims in an interview.

This month Canadian customs agents confiscated newsletters defending Israel’s moral right to exist. The material, sent by the Ayn Rand Insitute in California to the University of Toronto, was confiscated as possible hate propaganda. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, on his Web site “The Volokh Conspiracy,” provided a link to the text, but warned Canadian viewers that they might get in legal trouble if they accessed the material. After heavy publicity and complaints, customs released the newsletters.

In Canada, censorship is almost a national sport, like lacrosse and hockey. In Saskatchewan last year, a newspaper was fined for publishing an ad that quoted Bible verses on homosexuality. For this human rights violation, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the man who took out the ad had to pay $1,500. Presumably if the authors of the Bible had been available for trial, Saskatchewan would have dealt sternly with them, too.

Sweden is about to forge ahead of Saskatchewan by passing a constitutional amendment banning all speech or materials opposing homosexuality. When it does, remarks that offend gays could bring a jail term of up to four years. Christians would not be allowed to speak out against homosexuality, even in churches.

In the United States, pro-gay censorship is still in its infancy. A Christian law center filed suit against Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., for allegedly removing religion-based criticisms of homosexuality from the text of a student’s speech during Diversity Week. The suit says school officials told Betsy Hansen, then 18, that her views would “water down” the “positive” message about homosexuality that the school wanted to convey. The suit says she was kicked off a panel on homosexuality and religion, too.

The officials probably meant well. Coercive people usually do.

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