Only Places Have Rights?

March 3rd, 2013   Submitted by Wendy McElroy

prohibitedGeography 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.

27 Responses to “Only Places Have Rights?”

  1. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    The state claims ownership over all people and places. It cannot handle “state-free” zones.

  2. Blank blankingtonNo Gravatar says:

    I have been saying for a very very long time. I hope these morons who support this crap wake up one day and realize they have no freedom of privacy anymore.

  3. Good morning Blank: One of the reasons I follow UK newspapers is that political events there — especially in the area of political correctness — tend to spread over the Atlantic to land in North American society within about three years. There is no society absurdity that I dismiss from being on the horizon because “reductio ad absurdum” no longer works as a counter argument. We are living the reductio.

  4. Mo LibertyNo Gravatar says:

    Nice observation Wendy. Very nice article. Thanks!

  5. StormNo Gravatar says:

    Sadly we see more and more of this every day. We need food, shelter, and air to live, and the state decrees where we can have each, what form it will take, and how much access to it we can have.

    Examples include zoning laws and building codes that often force someone to buy or build a house that is more expensive than they want, and which fails to meet their needs properly. They do this in the name of safety but the writers of building codes are almost always the manufacturers of products who write the codes to require their products be used.

    On food, consider that in many places a backyard vegetable garden is acceptable, though not everywhere. Yet the same well kept attractive vegetable garden in the front yard is illegal.

    As for air, you note smoking is regulated severely including products other than tobacco. But even indoor air quality is regulated by the state, often to the detriment of those inside. Plants, which refresh the air, are forbidden in some buildings by some petty bureaucrats. Certainly the nature and style of plants outdoors are also very much controlled as well.

    As you hint at, every restriction we know to be absurd, the state sees as a good idea.

  6. Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

    The infringement on individual liberty continues apace. It shouldn’t be surprisilng. We have seen it all our lives. But in the last decade or so the stealing of legal freedoms has accellerated. Clinton was bad. Bush was worse. And Obama is basically a communist at heart. The fact that we continue to emuilate Great Britain in such areas as surveillance or now gun control shows how far we have fallen from the ideals of freedom.
    Along these same lines, I know a company that I have bought supplements from for 30 years that is being basically forced out of business by the feds for daring to sell supplements as raw powders. The exact same thing ils OK if sold precapsuled. Many people save a bunch of money using the powdered forms. Since this is a small family company, the feds know they can’t afford a court battle. So government shoves the little guys out of the way so the big companies can charge outrageous prices. This will hurt society’s general health, but that will help the feds justify Obamacare! Many poor folks are being put into a position of either buying insurance to pay for drugs or using the money for supplements to keep them healthy so as to not need the drugs. If the government can force supplement prices much higher, it will force many more people into overpriced ilnsurance which will ultilmately become socialized medicine if it has not already.

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      Hello Fritz: Good to see you posting. The crackdown on vitamins, health food and alternative medicine is so clearly a money grab by Big Pharma — the crony capitalists who are in bed with government — that I am amazed when anyone buys the argument that it is done in order to “ensure quality” or “prevent misuse.” It is especially infuriating because the state is trying to shut down one of the few ways people can take care of their own health. What’s next? Outlawing exercise equipment? I ask the last question sarcastically but, in reality, I don’t know what to expect next. As I mentioned in another comment, there is no longer any reductio ad absurdum.

      • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

        Peason and Shaw beat the FDA in court allowing vitamins to advertise scientificlly accurate filndings. Slince then Big Pharma and the FDA have predtty much ignored both the courts and the will of the people and continue raping us all with super high priced and often dangerous drugs. LIt is no wonder they want to outlaw inexpensive supplements that actually lhelp one stay healthy.

  7. MAMNo Gravatar says:

    Meh weren’t these free speech zone thingies around under King Bush II?

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      Yes, there were. As I stated in the article, these zones are nothing new. What is new is the extrame speed at which they are proliferating now.

      • MAMNo Gravatar says:

        I’m not sure what exactly can be done about this… I mean what? Violence of action is out.

        I’m just at a loss…

        The only thing I can do is improve myself. I can’t help other people and furthermore I don’t want to help Statists whether they are minarchists or worse.

        • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

          MAM…I think the best way people can free themselves — and others as well, without even meaning to — is to create a stateless life in which you use free market or personal alternatives to the ‘services’ the state wants to monopolize. The state is desperate for you to need it. The state tries to make you believe your children would not be educated, you would have no safe drugs or medical care, your community would be an open-crime zone, etc. etc. The worst thing you can do to the state is to make it irrelevant to your life…without ignoring the real danger it represents, of course. Protect yourself but do not willingly give it one more minute of your life than necessary.

          • MAMNo Gravatar says:

            Who does the State control more? The one who’s life it invades or the one who goes to extreme steps to avoid it?

            • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

              If I were talking about extreme measures like living in a cabin in a remote forest, then you would have a point. But I am talking about getting up in the morning and living your life without relying on the state. It is like living your life without an abusive partner. Shutting him out of your life does not make you dependent upon him. Quite the opposite. But if he is stalking you, then it is wise to put a lock on the door. Make yourself as safe as possible…and, then, pursue what Henry David Thoreau called “the business of living.”.

  8. John ZubeNo Gravatar says:

    Most laws are territorial laws, applied, without individual consent and voluntary membership to almost all the people living in a country, State or local government area. That right of territorial limitation of individual rights and liberties is the worst of all. Compare with it all the other zonal laws are pin-pricks, which do not lead to tyrannies and totalitarianism, international wars, civil wars and violent revolutions. With territorial monopolies abolished and voluntarism introduced in all spheres, individual rights and liberties would get their chance and spread from the first obviously successful experiments with them. However, I hold that a comprehensive declaration of these rights and a special militia of volunteers to protect them, to the extent that volunteers wish to practise them among themselves, would be two basic prerequisites for this change-over. – I do have a special interest in free speech zones in the open air, because several somewhat liberating revolutions started in them, e.g. the French Revolution in the zone of the Palais Royal, where Camille Desmoulins, a stutterer, called the people to arms, when the King had assembled troops around Paris. Within twenty-four hours a primitive militia of about 40,000 was established. Alas, sufficient knowledge of all to many basic rights and liberties was still lacking. Is the Internet already a sufficient enlightenment tool?

  9. Jim HodgeNo Gravatar says:

    “Jim Hodge – Allied Home Mortgage have been attacked by lawyers and the liberal press. A self made man of humble means is working hard to restore the jobs lost by these baseless attacks”

  10. nedludNo Gravatar says:

    Good morning~

    The wealthy imagine that they own the world. Their home and business rights extend to the whole world and universe for that matter. Obviously, this can mean no rights for anyone else. The rest of us are effectively homeless and worthless, as such.

    I was (and am) a small family farmer. Organic Valley, labeling themselves so-called ‘friend’ to farmers such as myself, but in fact just another bureaucratic tool for further domination by the wealthy, completely abused our small farm.

    I joined Common Dreams to voice my protest, on the internet, I was banned from CD. I joined Smirking Chimp to voice my protest, I was banned from SC. I joined Op-Ed News to write as an abused and dis-spirited human being and to further voice my protest and was banned from there too.

    I can tell you people and especially Wendy Mc Elroy, that the situation is actually worse than can be written. Techno-fascism (dominance by the wealthy and their machinery and robots) is destroying every little interconnected living thing and replacing it with broken parts. Ned Lud

    • nedludNo Gravatar says:

      It is not as though I just went online to ‘bitch’. I was looking for support. In all I found only one person who cared enough to help me. Her name was Judy Palmer, an out-of-work legal secretary. Together, we contacted many many lawyers. Not one lawyer would help me or my family and help us against Organic Valley, to get reparation for damage done and to obtain some measure of justice..

      We contacted many organizations, none would help. Supposed ‘family farm defenders’ groups. We contacted many individual ‘illuminaries’, so-called ‘voices of family farm agriculture’. People like Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Gene Logsdon and so on. NO ONE WOULD HELP. All seem to believe in the efficacy and rightness of the ORGANIZATION over any and all individuals.

      I say to every individual: You are owned and are worthless except as regarded by the owning entity, which is to say, those who have GIANT WEALTH and the organization and the technology that preserves it for them.

  11. Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

    Hello Nedlud: I do not for an instant believe you came online or here to “bitch.” As for my not knowing how bad it is for small farmers, my first instinct was to disagree with you…for one thing, I live on a farm but I am in rural Canada and, so, you are probably correct. I do know the realities of what you confornt. America is now in a vicious out-of-control cycle of crony capitalism that bleeds average people and breaks them in half when they are bled dry.

    I recognize the tone of your voice, however I have heard the same tone from so many divorced fathers in the Men’s Rights Movement who have been unjustly stripped of visitation rights although they are forced to pay high child support fees for 16-18 years. The family courts are among the most unjust because they have virtually no transparency, without even transcripts being maintained. These men are further frustrated because so few people — often including their own family members — do not believe that they have done nothing wrong to lose custody or that the courts could be as capricious and vicious as reported. Until you have gone through the process, you don’t really understand how life destroying it is. I hear that same bitterness from you in terms of the utter frustration at non-responsive organizations; indeed, that emotion seems to rival the rage you express at crony corporations causing the original problem. Nothing radicalizes a person as much as confronting the state and/or their “agents” up front and personal.

    Hang in there,

  12. DebNo Gravatar says:

    “Bureaucrats want to yank rights out from under individuals and make them a matter of place, not people.” But hasn’t that always been the case? The Constitution only granted rights on American soil. You could have different rights in different states. And in different countries. What’s changed now, except that smaller borders are being drawn?

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      Hello Deb: Yes it has always been the case…to some degree. Murray Rothbard used to speak of the constant battle between Liberty and Power, which is never won in the sense that either side is extinguished. There are ebbs and flows to each and we are definitely in an ebb of Liberty. The distressing aspect of what is happening now is not the “newness” of it but how overwhelming the surge of it has become. It is not a difference of kind but of degree, like a bothersome illness turning into a lethal disease..

  13. JunicanNo Gravatar says:

    Hello, Wendy M.
    Someone elsewhere provided a link to your site and I have enjoyed reading your thoughts and those of your commenters.
    Here in England, the rot set in many years ago when the seatbelt law was enacted. For your readers who may not know, every adult in a car is required by law to wear a seatbelt. Adults are responsible for ensuring that children are secured. It need hardly be spelt out that that law was a gross infringement of the basic human right to take whatever risks one wants. Prior to that law being enacted, there was a massive propaganda campaign on the TV. (Guess who fronted the campaign – it was the much maligned Sir Jimmy Savile!) What was never said, of course, was that there was no reason for that law, other than to save costs to the Government.

    The seatbelt law set a dangerous precedent which is only now revealing itself in the smoking ban laws. In this case, the iniquity is not so much that people are banned from smoking in ‘public’ places (which are, in fact, most often ‘private places’), but that free individuals are not permitted to set up bars and such with the specific intention of catering for people who enjoy tobacco. Again, there is no real reason for this law, other than vaguely stated illness reasons.

    In both the above cases, we also see the localisation of loss of simple human rights – in cars and in ‘public’ places. To make things even worse, the precedents have insured that the healthists/prohibitionists now have the bit firmly in their teeth and are galloping around all over the place.

    But my point concerns certain underlying principles. Has anyone noticed that the phrase ‘civil rights’ has been re-defined? It used to refer to the rights of individuals living in civil society to live freely, provided that they did not damage others. The phrase seems to have been re-defined to mean the rights of one group to dictate to another.

    But, worst of all, these attacks on the civil liberties of individuals are based upon nothing.

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      Welcome to the Daily Anarchist Junican! As a Canadian who observes the politics of both the United States and the UK, I constantly monitor the creeping (or leaping?) Nanny state measures in Britain because they ripple across the Atlantic so quickly. What happens in the UK gives me warning on what to expect on the streets of NYC in terms of political correctness. It used to California that adopted these trends first but Mayor Bloomberg is now the cutting edge of PC. I think you are correct, BTW, in dating the first real Nanny state measure — at least, in its modern form — back to the seatbelt laws. Good observation.

      And, yes, I have most definitely noticed the change in the meaning of “civil rights.” I believe it is the result of identity politics. I hope you do not mind my quoting my own article but it is a fast way to answer. From “Identity Politics Uber Alles es/ “Identity politics divides society into distinct political classes that have antagonistic interests: blacks against whites, women against men, gays against heterosexuals. It focuses, not on the individual rights of the group members, but on the interests that all members allegedly share. Receiving the same treatment from government as other groups ‘enjoy’ is high on the hierarchy of shared interests….Identity politics is a sharp departure from this conception of rights as being universal to all human beings. As important as such secondary characteristics as gender or race may be, they are precisely that — secondary. The shared humanity is primary. We are, first and finally, all human beings.”

  14. cherie79No Gravatar says:


    I would just like to second the above post, I don’t recognise the society I grew up in and the US authorities seem intent on proving everything I thought I knew and admired about America is no longer true, very sad. I admired the way everyone, no matter what their origin, became an American or at least their children did. Now everyone is hyphenated and a President I thought would bring people together has proved to be the most devisive ever.

  15. JunicanNo Gravatar says:

    Many thanks for that, Wendy – and hello Cherie! Fancy meeting you here!

    I have you as a favourite and I so I am sure that I shall be back.

    I suspect that we shall continue to struggle with the Zealots, if only because of their monopoly position. There is not much use in arguing about facts with someone who isn’t listening. We must continue to scratch away at the foundations of the prohibitionist citadel.