The Assault on Civil Liberties

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

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The Assault on Civil Liberties

by Ari Armstrong

April 23, 1999

The vast majority of the Colorado community has responded to the tragedy at Columbine High School with grace, courage, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness. Unfortunately, a frightening undercurrent of reactionary Big Brotherism following the tragedy threatens to weaken civil liberties in America.

The Assault on the Freedom of Speech

In a group discussion with President Clinton April 23, one student asked what the Federal government can do to control the content of the internet. It turns out that Eric Harris, one of the killers, maintained a web page drenched in hate. Harris reportedly shared information on how to make bombs over the internet.

Can the right of free speech be abused? Of course it can! Rights imply responsibilities, and not everyone lives up to those responsibilities. But the alternative is a society in which Big Brother gets to decide what speech is acceptable and what is not.

Of course, the right of speech hardly implies that law enforcers cannot follow publicized comments and use such comments in their investigations. At one point, Harris published a "hit list" on his public internet site (and threats of violence are already illegal) that included the name of at least one other Columbine student. The threatened student shared this information with the police, which apparently prompted no action.

Parents also retain rights to monitor their children's behavior. Children acquire their full rights only upon reaching adulthood. Harris's parents were fully capable of monitoring their son's activities, and his public documents, and taking preventative action. Apparently, they failed to do so.

What can the Federal government do to control the content of the internet? It could probably manage to regulate the contents of every site. There could be an official licensing agency that approved the content of each page. What should the Federal government do to control the content of the internet? Absolutely nothing, except possibly to stop inherently illegal activities such as child pornography (which could also be handled on the state level). When we the people confer upon the government the ability to restrict our freedom of speech, the line defining "acceptable" speech will continually be redrawn according to government fiat. We must protect ugly speech from the control of the government so that the beautiful, the enlightened, the unusual, and the genius can also thrive.

The music of groups such as Marilyn Manson and Rammstein, as well as movies from directors such as Oliver Stone, are targeted by some. Individuals have every right to speak out against music and films they find offensive. However, that's as far as the reaction can appropriately be taken. The Rocky Mountain News published a letter to the editor April 22 which reads, "Marilyn Manson, along with all other purveyors of filth and violence, Hollywood in particular, should be indicted for murder, convicted and executed." In other words, shred the First Amendment and persecute people for their ideas and words. That the News would publish such a letter is astonishing. The comment is perhaps best interpreted as an isolated, emotionally-charged outburst, but still its tone and meaning are disquiting.

Many, especially members of the "Christian Right," find movies such as Fargo and Pulp Fiction to be "filthy and violent." Others, however, find strong anti-violence themes in these films and an enlightened commentary on the human condition. That's why we have free speech, so that we can agree to disagree. We maintain freedom of religion for precisely the same reason.

Freedom is always at risk, but especially so in times of social turmoil. The wrong way to resolve a crisis is to blindly call for more government control. The right way is to rely on and create voluntaristic social institutions to heal the wounds.

The Assault on the Freedom of Peaceable Self-Expression

Many students wear attire that associates them with a particular social group and conveys a set of specific attitudes. Athletes frequently wear sports uniforms and letter jackets. Others wear more striking, more rebellious attire. Apparently, the so-called "Trench Coat Mafia" at Columbine wore long black jackets to distinguish themselves. Now, talk of personality profiles overseen by the police is gaining an audience.

A market school has every right to require uniforms if it so desires. A government school has a more difficult time instituting strict dress and behavioral codes, simply because it is tax-funded. But since when is it OK to judge a person based on his or her appearances, particularly when such judgment comes in hand with police supervision?

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are not criminals because they dressed in black. They are criminals because they murdered thirteen people and injured many more. The appearance of a person is never an excuse to harass, intimidate, or regulate him or her.

To be sure, parents and school officials have every right to show concern with rebellious children. Helping children overcome emotional problems is one thing. Violating the privacy of such children is quite another.

The scapegoating continues with appearances. The Denver Post reported April 22 that "a backlash of hate calls and fingerpointing against Denver's 'goth' community erupted" in the aftermath of the shooting. Hasn't there been enough hate? Hasn't there been enough of targeting individuals because of their clothes or appearance?

The Assault on the Right of Self-Defense

In two events organized by Denver Mayor Wellington Webb (who has no jurisdiction in Littleton), speakers disparaged the right of self-defense, calling for more onerous restrictions on the Second Amendment right to own firearms. The National Rifle Association was demonized, as were Colorado legislators who defend gun rights.

State Representative Doug Dean, the sponsor of a bill that would expand the right to carry concealed weapons, received threats at his home and office from some Colorado residents. However, there is simply no connection between Dean's proposed legislation and the Columbine slaughter. Indeed, Dean makes a compelling case, based on studies from other states with concealed carry laws, that such laws increase public safety by deterring criminals. But Dean's opponents are not interested in facts, studies, or logic. Guns are to be vilified at all costs in this climate of lynch-mob politics.

And another scapegoat is sent away, while society's problems remain unaddressed. More government, more control, more Big Brother. Less freedom and civility.

Those who oppose civil liberties of self-defense fail to mention that Harris and Klebold already broke numerous laws before even setting foot into Columbine. Richard Becker did a good job of outlining the legal facts of the killers' behavior in an April 22 letter to the Rocky Mountain News. It is already illegal for minors to possess the semi-automatic handguns Harris and Klebold carried. It is already illegal to carry firearms onto school property. It is already illegal to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Certainly it is illegal to construct bombs, which the killers made by the dozens. If anything we need better enforcement of the laws already on the books.

Some who spoke at Webb's events claimed that a concealed carry law would "make more guns available to children." Yet there is not a whit of evidence or reasoning to support this contention. Concealed carry laws do not bring more guns into existence, they give gun owners the right to carry their gun for protection from criminals. Such laws also lead to more firearms training, in which more gun owners learn how to safely handle a weapon. If anything, a concealed carry law would reduce the availability of guns to children by creating a more responsible firearms community.

A fundamental problem in the Columbine tragedy is that the parents of the killers failed to prevent their children from acting in blatantly illegal and dangerous ways. The killers constructed sophisticated bombs in their parents' garage over a period of days. No law in the world can compensate for such gross abnegation of parental responsibility.

The N.R.A. evokes the saying, "Guns don't kill people, [violent] people kill people." Opponents of the civil right of self-defense counter, "Yes, but criminals with guns are better able to kill people." But the point remains that lawful people with guns are better able to protect themselves and their families against violent criminals, and laws prohibiting known criminals from owning guns are already on the books. The opponents of gun rights need to think through the logic of their argument. Why not let the government control the content of internet sites, books, and movies? If Eric Harris hadn't obtained the plans to build his bombs, he may have killed fewer people in the school. "Free speech doesn't kill people, people kill people." If we want to live in a free society, we must restrict only those acts which initiate violence against others.

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It's easy to seek scapegoats in the aftermath of trauma. It's easy for politicians to exploit tragedy for their own political ends. But irrational anger is no substitute for a healthy process of grieving. Somber reflection is better than blindly acting out in anger. Grief and anger must be channeled appropriately, or we will very likely end up with a society even less civil and wholesome than the one we now live in.

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