Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

A Look Over the Horizon? Look All Around!

You don’t have to look far over the horizon to know what life in America would be like if we had a national ID.  On Saturday, the Associated Press reported that a mall in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin is considering requiring ID from youths before they can enter.  This is private ordering, of course, but private ordering doesn’t happen in a bubble.  Private actors will be much more likely to check IDs if there is a nationally uniform ID system.

With IDs and credentials of different designs and from different issuers in our hands today, ID checking is relatively rare, and rarely automated.  Nonetheless, companies like Intelli-Check are pushing electronic ID-checking systems for nanny-state purposes. They would have a much easier time if all of us carried the same card and it was effectively mandatory.  Keep in mind that more ID checking equals more personal data collection.

In tiny Earlville, Illinois, a woman named Joy Robinson-Van Gilder has started a one-woman crusade against her local public school which decided to use fingerprint biometrics to administer the purchase of hot lunches in the cafeteria.  Despite her wishes, they fingerprint-scanned her 7-year-old, for a time refusing to allow him hot lunches if he wouldn’t use their system. 

The starting point for this kind of program is using it to manage lunch payments, but the ending point is a detailed record of each child’s eating habits and the school usurping the role of parents.  It’s no wonder government schools are at the center of so much social conflict.

There is nothing inherently wrong with identification or with biometrics but, unless they are adopted through voluntary choice, they will be designed to serve institutions and not people.

The Federal Communications Commission Versus the First Amendment

Newspapers and movie studios have reasonably good protections from government intervention and censorship. But as Steve Chapman explains, the Federal Communications Commission successfully has limited the First Amendment rights of television networks:

The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech has complex implications, but it clearly means two things: The government cannot tell you what to say, and it cannot tell you what not to say. That is your own business, and if you conduct it in a way the government dislikes, the government can take a flying leap. Unless by “government” you mean the Federal Communications Commission. It operates on the assumption that in its special realm, the First Amendment is a nonbinding resolution.

In addition to the constitutional argument, he makes two excellent points. First, improving television quality (as defined by politicians) is not the business of government. Second, parents should decide what their kids see, not bureaucrats:

…parents who want to shield their kids from bad language on TV already have ample means to do so – via channel blocking and V-chips that can be used to filter out programs with content they regard as inappropriate. The FCC says these methods are ineffective because parents don’t use them. More likely, parents don’t bother because they don’t think the problem is serious enough to justify the effort to shield kids from words they’ve already heard on YouTube. To insert the federal government is not a way to strengthen the authority of parents but to circumvent it. …The idea that we need the FCC to assure educational opportunities for children is nonsense on stilts. In the first place, there are plenty of channels, from PBS to the Discovery Channel, that offer nothing but educational programming. …In the second place, any parents truly interested in exposing their children to intellectual stimulation are more likely to shut the TV off than turn it on. Even if more educational programming would be a good thing, what business is that of the government? More G-rated films would be a good thing, too, but we don’t force movie studios to produce them. …Today, most viewers no longer distinguish between cable and broadcast programs. So having different rules for each makes about as much sense as having different regulations for odd- and even-numbered channels.

Pork and Principle

The Hill reports that Blue Dog Democrats are very concerned about the proper balance of powers between the president and Congress. But for a big hike in farm subsidies, they’ll forget about that little constitutional matter. 

House Democratic leaders will add nearly $4 billion for farmers to a bill funding military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to attract conservative Democrats concerned that the measure would wrongly constrict President Bush’s power as commander in chief.

The Democrats hope that moderate Republicans are just as malleable:

Democrats may also add money for children’s health insurance in the hope of winning the votes of Republicans such as Illinois Reps. Mark Kirk (R) and Judy Biggert (R), whose home state faces a $240 million deficit in its State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

To be fair, there’s no proof in the story that Kirk and Biggert are considering such a deal, but Republican leaders are reported to fear it.

In the civics books, they tell us that members of Congress deliberate about war, separation of powers, balanced budgets, and so on, and then make collective decisions. If you read a newspaper, though, you soon learn about logrolling and other budget games. Still, it’s one thing to trade your vote for farm pork for the other guy’s vote for urban pork; the taxpayers lose twice, but at least it’s only money. Trading your vote on a matter of life and death, which is also a fundamental constitutional issue, for a few billion in home-state pork seems entirely unbecoming to a member of the legislature of the world’s most successful republic.

Senator Susan Collins Supports National ID

I wrote here previously about Senator Susan Collins’ odd move to protect the REAL ID Act from a nationwide rebellion that began in her own state of Maine.  She had introduced a bill to extend the deadline for implementation of the REAL ID Act by two years.

Followers of REAL ID know that delaying implementation helps a national ID go forward by giving the companies and organizations that sustain themselves on these kinds of projects time to shake the federal money tree and get this $11 billion surveillance mandate funded.

It is now clear that the bill is intended to provide a key piece of support to proponents of a national ID, as shown by a press release on her Web site this morning touting a statement from the National Governors Association.  Collins has gone native, attending more carefully to the interests of national political organizations than to the interests of her constituents in Maine.

Representative Tom Allen (D-ME) has introduced legislation to repeal REAL ID and restore the identification provisions in the 9/11-Commission inspired Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.  Unlike Collins, he seems to be paying attention to his home state.  Politicians’ stances on REAL ID have affected their electability in the past.

Senator Collins should be well aware that delay can’t make the REAL ID Act work.  The real problem is the law itself, and it should be repealed.

Update: A DHS press release issued today announces that it will grant states an extension of the compliance deadline, and it will allocate funds from the Homeland Security Grant Program.  The money tree has already begun shaking.  Secretary Chertoff is quoted saying, “We are also pleased to have been able to work with Senator Susan Collins, and I believe that the proposed regulations reflect her approach.” 

FBI Scandal

The FBI looked the other way when it knew that several people were being framed for a crime they did not commit.  Some might say, “Well, we all know there were certain abuses when Hoover was running the bureau in the ol’ days.”  But behold the argument advanced by the attorney representing the United States government:

Yesterday, a Justice Department lawyer argued that the FBI had no duty to share internal documents with state prosecutors and insisted the state was responsible for convicting the men in the slaying of Edward “Teddy” Deegan in Chelsea.

“The United States is not liable to plaintiffs because they were convicted as a result of a state prosecution,” Bridget Bailey Lipscomb said. “The FBI did not initiate this prosecution, and there is no duty of the FBI to submit to state or local governments any of its internal files.”

The government is not denying the fact that it knew what was happening. Nor is it saying the plaintiffs were wronged but are asking for too much money.  The government is instead arguing that it had no duty to come forward. 

At a minimum, one might ask what the FBI means when it says that one of its “core values” is “Accountability [by] accepting responsibility for its actions and decisions and the consequences of its actions and decisions.”  Maybe the director means that his agents will not arrest people who bring lawsuits against the bureau alleging illegal conduct.  Maybe he means something else. 

At worst, criminal laws were broken here.  An ordinary citizen can go to jail for suborning perjury.  It is also a crime to stand by and let a crime take place without notifying the authorities (misprision of felony).  The feds evidently believe they are not bound by these rules.  Pretty shocking.  Even if the judge rules against the Department of Justice, we should not forget what it argued in this case.

To listen to a Cato event on the FBI’s informer scandal, go here.     

Would You Like Fries with that Arrogance?

This isn’t really my beat, but it pushed my buttons (and not in a good way) all the same. Prince Charles, first in line for the British throne, has reportedly called for a ban on McDonald’s.

A known organic food advocate, Prince Charles was touring a diabetes center in Abu Dhabi when he made what McDonald’s assumes was an “off the cuff” remark about how banning McDonald’s was the “key” to improving diets.

This offends me on so many levels. First, as a libertarian I object to anyone telling others what they can put in their mouths. Second, the fact that the remarks come from someone whose power is derived solely through heredity (and, to my knowledge, has no qualifications in nutrition or public health) annoys me even more.

But mainly I am offended by the gall of a Brit casting aspersions on the quality of any cuisine.