Geography is a peculiar way to think about rights. But the rights that people can exercise are being increasingly defined by the square foot of earth they happen to stand on. These ‘rights’ can change in the course of a two-minute walk.
I am not referring to the fact that various nations recognize rights in widely different ways. Nor do I refer to the rules of conduct laid down by property owners for anyone who wants to enter their homes or businesses. I mean the steady curtailing of the legal and Constitutionally-protected rights that peaceful people are allowed to exercise in public places. From free-speech zones at universities to the “cages” into which protesters are frequently forced, the ability to exercise fundamental rights in public places (and sometimes private ones) is being narrowed down geographically.
Britain seems to be leading the way for America. On September 11, 2012, the UK-based Spiked magazine published an article entitled “The unfree streets of London.” The subtitle: “A shocking new Google Map shows the bits of London where you can become a criminal without even realising it.” The map indicated 435 zones that cover approximately half of the city. In walking from one street to the next, the zone can change without warning; a person can then be fined or arrested for an activity that was legal a moment before. The unfree zones include: dog-exclusion, alcohol-confiscation, no-leafletting, dispersal, and restricted protest.
The punishments can be harsh. For example, in an alcohol-confiscation zone, a sober person can be required to surrender unopened alcohol to the police. Refusal brings a stiff fine and possible arrest. The administration of zones can be arbitrary. For example, the police can order individuals or a group to leave a dispersal zone if, in his opinion, their behavior causes or could cause “a member of the public” to be “harassed, intimidated, alarmed or distressed.” The evicted cannot return for 24 hours.
Unfree zones or areas in America are nothing new; dry counties that ban alcohol have a long history. The current prevalence and variety of zones, however, is alarming. It is a creeping and pernicious process. At every slight erosion of rights, bureaucrats can argue the limitations are a small matter. The opposite is true. Street by street and building by building, rights are being chipped away and converted into privileges that can be exercised only where, when and how the state permits. Rights no longer adhere to people who possess them equally; rights adhere to places where freedom is restricted or permitted by law enforcement.
Several common justifications are used to promote this geographical definition of rights.
Public safety. Most public buildings and many private businesses are now required to be smoke free zones, even if the owner objects. Most public institutions ban guns even if the carrier is duly licensed. The bans are justified by public safety; that is, someone could be harmed by second-hand smoke or by reckless gun use.
Decency. Environmental policies restrict what and where people can build or how they may use their own property. Even the act of picking up a rock in a State or National Park can be illegal. The reason? There is a so-called moral obligation to leave an unaltered world for the next generation.
Social good. New York City’s impending ban on sodas that top 16 ounces was justified in the name of improving public health. The recent banning of candy from some public schools was done to counter an alleged epidemic of child obesity.
Social order. The protest cages and zones into which activists are herded and isolated so they can be ignored are legitimized by an alleged need for social order in the streets. The Occupy Movement was accused of inconveniencing businesses and pedestrians and will be used to further curtail the right to assemble or demonstrate.
The designated unfree areas usually share certain characteristics. They are established by political advocates who wish to impose a vision of society on others by force. A great deal of power is vested in unelected, local administrators with law enforcement having a great deal of arbitrary power. This is especially true as the policies are enforced with zero tolerance. (In Britain, the police can deputize average people so that they are able to issue fines to the ne’er-do-wells in the unfree zones.) There is no due process. The restrictions rarely solve real issues of safety; they further social control. The restrictions could be Constitutionally challenged but this rarely happens because the victims cannot afford to spend years in court to contest a fine of a few hundred or thousand dollars.
Another shared characteristic: the strait-jacketing of rights usually begins on public property. This is property ‘owned’ by the state that claims to administer it on behalf of the public. An example is the free speech zones established by universities, almost all of which are state funded and regulated. The First Amendment provides that Congress “shall make no law…abridging freedom of speech.” Free speech zones at universities are rigidly designated areas in which students can voice most opinions without official censure. By implication, all other areas of the university are no-free speech zones.
The queue of “rights that depend on geography” is growing. Texting while walking has become the new social sin. Portland, Oregon just made it illegal for a man to whistle on public streets unless he keeps walking and, so, distributes the noise pollution. Many cities are considering the same type of ban imposed by Bloomberg in NYC: a ban on donations of food to homeless shelters because the city could not guarantee the salt, fat and fiber content; it is better for people to starve than to eat improperly.
And, then, there is the Constitution-free zone that surrounds American borders. By the Bill of Rights, Americans cannot be subject to arbitrary stops and searches. But borders have been treated as a grey area because customs and immigration claim huge legal powers in exchange for the ‘privilege’ of letting anyone in or out. Now the border has been redefined to be a 100-mile wide area from the nearest external crossing. All American soil within that 100 mile framework is a Constitution-free zone in the same manner as the TSA is Constitution free. The majority of Americans live within 100 miles from an external border. This is means a woman on her way to the grocery store, a man coming home from work, a child playing in a park have no Constitutional rights against being stopped and harassed without explanation by law enforcement.
Bureaucrats want to yank rights out from under individuals and make them a matter of place, not people. All you need to do is be in the wrong place, and you have no rights. Speak out, drink a large soda, hand out literature, walk your dog, or whistle too long in one place…crime is everywhere. Soon you will be free only in the privacy of your own home. Oh, wait. They are starting to ban smoking in private residences as well. Nevermind.