Shooting Down the ACLU

The insidious quality of ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser's interpretation of the Second Amendment (Letters, Oct.) becomes apparent if we apply precisely the same reasoning to the First. It goes something like this:

"Most advocates of freedom of speech concede that the First Amendment does not give one the right to yell 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre. Once we concede the constitutionality of government bans on some speech, we are talking about, not whether government may restrict speech, but rather, what constitutes a reasonable restriction. Since the First Amendment provides no basis for such distinctions, the decision is up to the legislature. An absolute ban on freedom of speech under all conditions might well be unreasonable. So would restrictions that affect the ACLU's concerns, such as invasion of privacy or illegal searches. But the Sedition Acts raise no such issues, which is why the ACLU does not object to them on constitutional grounds."

Glasser is playing an irresponsible game with the Second Amendment. If one part of the Constitution can be neutralized through rhetorical gamesmanship, so can the rest.

Allan Walstad
Physics Department
University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown
Johnstown, PA

As an ACLU member, I wrote to the organization's national headquarters in April, asking for a clarification of its policy toward the Second Amendment. The answer says: "Except for police and military purposes, we believe that the possession of weapons by individuals is not constitutionally protected." While Mr. Glasser's arguments regarding "reasonable restrictions" on weapons ownership may or may not have anything to do with official ACLU policy, they serve as a good example of the dangers of compromising on a basic freedom.

Terry Atwood
Bethesda, MD

Ira Glasser leaves out the language of the Second Amendment, statistical evidence to support his contention that most advocates of the right to bear arms concede a government right to ban some weapons, and the provisions of Article V itself, which explain how to amend the Constitution.

If Mr. Glasser and the ACLU, in their fervent quest for the rule of law, feel that restrictions on Second Amendment rights are necessary, why don't they work for a constitutional amendment to restrict those rights? Answer: They would never get the votes of two-thirds of the members of the Senate and House of Representatives, or two-thirds of the state legislatures, to support such an amendment.

C. K. Tyler
Washington, DC

Indecent Exposure?

I appreciated the article "Penises and Politics" (Oct.), especially the comment that broadcasters must virtually read the minds of FCC regulators to know when something will be considered indecent. But while the rules may be quite arbitrary, it's difficult to foresee any clear-cut standards for indecency, primarily because language is so fluid. For example, one of George Carlin's comedy videos ends with a rather remarkable list of euphemisms for the sexual act, never once coming anywhere near the "seven dirty words."

I heartily agree with Jacob Sullum that "not everyone who 'pushes the envelope' does so for purposes of titillation." Mojo Nixon deliberately provokes, but he can hardly be accused of titillating. Others who have run afoul of censors are not even pointedly provocative. The song "Penis Envy" (written and performed not by the Roches, as the article says, but by the now-defunct Seattle band Uncle Bonsai) is an upbeat, funny song which I heard performed at an outdoor, family-oriented concert. This song certainly may be inappropriate for certain radio formats, just as Elvis might raise some hackles if played on a classical station, but banning such an innocuous song is absurd.

Scott Stevens
Boston, MA

Over the years, your magazine has changed my opinion on many issues. One issue, however, will take more persuasion—that is the issue of "broadcast pornographers' rights."

Surely persons should have the right to buy and sell whatever they choose, whether it is milk, bread, guns, sex, or drugs. But inherent in that right is the right of noninterested persons to not be involved. For example, while I have the right to make any political protest or engage in any activity I choose, do I have the right to persistently do so on the public street in front of your home?

How, then, is it appropriate for anyone to have access to the electromagnetic spectrum, with the ability to transmit any material into every car, every business, and every home, on essentially random frequencies decodable by ubiquitous receivers? Must we then be continually surrounded by broadcast material that offends many and has no valid political purpose? Don't people have the right to create and live in communities having some self-defined moral standards? Or at least don't they have the right to confine certain "vices" to one area of the community only? And if those persons don't have such rights, then who is ultimately forcing their beliefs on whom?

David Smith
Ogden, UT

Mr. Sullum replies: Apologies to Uncle Bonsai. While access to segments of the electromagnetic spectrum—which should be viewed as a property right, although the government does not treat it that way—enables broadcasters to reach a wide audience, it doesn't enable them to impose their messages on anyone. After all, TV sets and radios are equipped with channel selectors and on/off switches. Parents concerned about their children's exposure to inappropriate programming have a number of options, including monitoring the kids' viewing or listening, using channel blocking (available with newer TV sets and cable boxes), or not buying broadcast receivers to begin with.

Campus Craze

Thomas Hazlett's analysis of the political correctness epidemic on college campuses is right on target ("P.C. Left, P.C. Right," Aug./Sept.). The rush by many conservatives to take an anti-P.C. position is cynically opportunistic and only serves to further obscure what is at risk in the academy. The real issues aren't about left vs. right. The real issues are about freedom vs. the ways in which one might be deprived of freedom by both the left and the right.

Traditional conservatives are nothing if not certain about the proper moral order to which any society ought to aspire. This moral order is predominantly proscriptive: "Thou shalt not," with emphasis on the "not," typically characterizes the morality of the right.

So long as the list of proscribed acts is short and reasonable, it is no doubt the right strategy for building a morality. It becomes problematic when the list is extended unjustifiably to include "Thou shalt not belong to the Communist Party," "Thou shalt not speak of Charles Darwin," and the like.

The moral order of the left stems from a more insidious ethic. Theirs is a prescriptive morality, and a relativistic one at that. The ideology of the left denies concepts such as "natural law," or any other system of belief that asserts the possibility of discovering universal moral principles. And because the left believes morality is entirely a product of socialization—i.e., there is no human nature which provides clues to the good life—the key to building a society comprising the right kinds of people is to seize control of the mechanisms of socialization.

Having done so, it isn't enough to tell people what not to do. The obvious solution is to tell them what they must do, what kinds of thoughts are correct and acceptable, what expressions and attitudes are proper, and so on. The current P.C. phenomenon is thus a natural consequence of the relativism of the left, and its greater scope and more restrictive character makes it different from the right's political correctness.

By no means does the difference between left and right mean that we should prefer the latter. Instead, this may be a wonderful opportunity for true liberals, in the classical sense, to recruit from among those of both left and right who haven't before thought through their own positions. Were that to happen, at least one good thing would come of the P.C. fad.

Ken Livingston
Department of Psychology
Vassar College
Poughkeepsie, NY

No One Under 17 Admitted

Congratulations to you and to Thomas Harvey Holt on his fine article "Growing Up Green" (Oct.). Mr. Holt makes a number of excellent points—not the least of which is that "kids [should not be used] for adult agendas." Let's hope that the Wichita anti-abortion protesters will understand the relevance of that statement to their tactics.

Richard D. Bach
Portland, OR