Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

The Corrosion of Parental Rights

Today in the Oregon newspaper Bend Weekly, Phyllis Schlafly opines that “Congress should restore parental rights in public schools.” In the 35 years since I first heard Schlafly speak, I have rarely agreed with her on anything, but today is one of those occasions.

I certainly don’t believe in the substance of what she finds offensive, but I do agree that parents are being robbed of their rights to educate and bring up their children as they see fit. Of course, the answer is to abolish the public school system altogether, but until then, how do parents maintain even a minimal control over what their children are taught and exposed to in the public schools? 

Two things Schlafly proposes are appealing: She would like Congress to require public schools with human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination programs to offer the vaccine only on a parental “opt in,” not “opt out,” basis and that no public school should be allowed to deny a child entry into school for not being immunized against HPV. She also believes Congress should require that schools get written parental consent before subjecting children to mental health screening.

For once, I hope Schlafly gets her way.

Will McCain Talk Straight?

John McCain has once again boarded the Straight Talk Express. You might recall that his bus trips and cozy conversations with the media brought victory in the New Hampshire primary in 2000, though not ultimately the Republican nomination for president that year. The bus symbolized that McCain was “a different kind of politician” and all the other cliches that have come to denote his public persona.

McCain’s back on the bus because his campaign for the GOP nomination has stumbled. Rudolph Guiliani leads in the polls, and McCain appears on the cusp of a death spiral. Politicians have long appealed to popular sentiment to attain power. The Straight Talk Express continues that tradition.

But how straight will McCain’s talk be? In 2000 in New Hampshire, he talked mostly about campaign finance restrictions. McCain’s current political problem comes in part from that “straight talk.” Republican primary voters don’t much support campaign finance restrictions. They understand correctly that the dominant purpose of such restrictions has long been to limit the speech and political activity of anyone who is not a liberal, a group that includes almost all of the Republican primary electorate.

So will McCain talk straight at his moment of greatest need? Will we once again hear of the corruption brought to politics by Big Money? Will he speak straight and forcefully against the Swift Boat ads in 2004?

This is a crucial moment for Senator McCain. He must talk incessantly about his support for restricting political speech. If he does not, Republican primary voters might conclude that McCain is just another ambitious, opportunistic politician who will say anything to gain power equal to desire.

And we know that is incorrect in his case, don’t we? After all, he talks straight.

Republicans Remember Some of Their Principles

Great headline in the Washington Post today –

Dozens in GOP Turn Against Bush’s Prized ‘No Child’ Act

The good news is that

More than 50 GOP members of the House and Senate – including the House’s second-ranking Republican – will introduce legislation today that could severely undercut President Bush’s signature domestic achievement, the No Child Left Behind Act, by allowing states to opt out of its testing mandates.

The bad news is that even

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said that advocates do not intend to repeal the No Child Left Behind Act. Instead, they want to give states more flexibility to meet the president’s goals of education achievement, he said.

So even a small-government federalist like Jim DeMint isn’t willing to say that education is a family, community, or state responsibility, but not a federal responsibility. Still, weakening the mandates would be a real victory for decentralization and competition.

I particularly liked the comment from Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), author of the proposed House bill:

“President Bush and I just see education fundamentally differently,” said Hoekstra, a longtime opponent of the law. “The president believes in empowering bureaucrats in Washington, and I believe in local and parental control.”

Hoekstra, who spoke at last week’s Cato conference on reauthorization of the No Child act (at the end of the panel 1 video), sounds like he’s read Cato’s 2005 paper on the topic. Now he and DeMint should reread the paper and commit themselves to getting the federal government out of our local schools.

Google Does a Good Thing

I have written here a couple of times about concerns with Google’s data retention practices in light of its susceptibility for use in government surveillance. 

Happily, a couple of Google lawyers have announced on the Google blog that the company will be making the data from their server logs “much more anonymous, so that it can no longer be identified with individual users, after 18-24 months.” That’s a big, important change, as Google’s privacy policy has never before pledged to destroy or anonymize data about all of our searches.

Now, there are some interesting details - details that are highlighted by the text I quoted above. “Anonymous” is correctly regarded as an absolute condition. Like pregnancy, anonymity is either there or it’s not. Modifying the word with a relative adjective like “more” is a curious use of language.

Google has a challenge, if they’re going to anonymize data and not destroy it, to make sure that a person’s identity and behavior cannot be reconstructed from it. As AOL’s fiasco with releasing “anonymized” search data showed, clipping off the obvious identifiers won’t do it. As data mining capabilities advance, anonymizing techniques will have to keep ahead of that.

There are interesting things that can be done to synthesize data, making it statistically relevant while factually incoherent. Hopefully, Google will sic some of its finest famously-smarty-pants engineers on the task of making their anonymous data really, really anonymous.

(Cross-posted from TechLiberationFront)

No People in Washington, D.C.?

The majority opinion in last week’s federal Appeals Court ruling striking down D.C.’s stringent gun ban has garnered considerable attention from both the media and the public. Much less attention has been given to the court’s dissenting opinion (which begins on p. 59 of this .pdf), authored by Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson. I suppose that’s not surprising, given that her opinion “lost.” 

But part of the dissenting opinion should be very troubling to D.C. residents: according to Judge Henderson, they’re not “people” in the eyes of the Bill of Rights.

Judge Henderson states in her 5th footnote (p. 5 of her opinion, p. 63 of the .pdf):

[J]ust as the Tenth Amendment ties the rights reserved thereunder to “the people” of the individual “States,” thereby excluding “the people” of the District, … the Second Amendment similarly limits “the people” to those of the States….

Do you get it? According to Judge Henderson, Second and Tenth Amendments’ protections extend only to “people” living in the “States.” As D.C. is not a state, reasons Judge Henderson, District residents are not covered by those protections. 

I wonder: does this reasoning extend to the other protections granted by the Bill of Rights to “the people”? In the opinion of Judge Henderson, do District residents also not have the right ”to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”? Do District residents not have the right to due process? Do they not have constitutional protection from double-jeopardy and self-incrimination? Can District residents “be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime” without indictment from a grand jury and without representation? Can District residents “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”? Can District residents’ “private property be taken for public use without just compensation”? After all, the Bill of Rights explicitly guarantees those rights to “the people” or to a “person,” just as it guarantees “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.”

To remember what rights you have (or, if you’re a District resident, what rights you may not have), be sure to order a copy of the U.S. Constitution (also available in Spanish and Arabic).

“Gun Violence”

As a new round of debate about gun control gets underway, watch out for the term “gun violence.” Stop anyone that uses the term and ask them what they mean by it. “Gun violence” lumps criminal acts and acts of self-defense together.  It obfuscates serious discussion. If the crux of the debate is pacifism, let’s get to it and not talk around it.

I should note that President Bush and his prosecutors talk about “gun violence” too. They say their vigorously enforced firearm regulations “reduce gun violence.”  They want the listener to think they’re locking up violent thugs, but the phrase once again lumps stuff together that ought to be kept apart. For example, undercover officers might buy drugs from an apartment. A few hours later, they get a search warrant and raid the place.  During the search, they find an unloaded handgun in the bottom of a closet. Prosecutors subsequently charge the drug offender with “using a gun during a narcotics offense.”  (No kidding. Go to footnote 54).

For other distortions of language, go here.  For Cato work on gun control, go here.

Al Qaeda in Perspective

Multiplicitous federal policies and programs threaten privacy - data mining, the REAL ID Act, National Security Letters, etc. - and they threaten trade and commerce too.  The link among them, of course, is the threat of terrorist attacks. 

An essential part of any security discussion is to get a handle on the threat.  Cato Unbound devoted some energy to that problem last September with exquisitely rational analysis from the Ohio State University’s John Mueller, while former Inspector General of the United States Department of Homeland Security Clark Kent Ervin argued, “I’d Rather Err on the Side of the Believers.” 

Now the RAND Corporation has released a report called “Exploring Terrorist Targeting Preferences.”  According to the press release announcing the report, it finds “little evidence of a coherent al Qaeda strategy for U.S. attack.”  The report explores four different theories of al Qaeda’s motivation, toward the end of determining its likely future actions.

I don’t have the capacity to critique the report and I don’t think it ends the inquiry, of course.  Al Qaeda’s motivation should be a matter of continuous study, along with all other threatening entities.  The capacity of threats to follow through on their intentions should be the subject of equally searching, continuous study.

But I think it is essential to have reports like this issued and discussed.  They are part of getting the threat of terrorism in perspective and solving the security dilemmas created by terrorism. These problems are not easy, but they are fully susceptible to solution consistent with our Constitution and our tradition of liberty.