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Independence Day a reminder to appreciate individual rights
Sacramento Bee


July 04, 2005

As we celebrate the birth of the nation, we should not forget that the essential purpose of those who signed the Declaration of Independence 229 years ago was not merely to create a new nation, but to create one that would protect the "inalienable rights" of human beings to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Those rights were spelled out in more detail in the Constitution's Bill of Rights but their essential message remained intact and remains valid today: Live and let live.

Ironically, as the concept of individual rights continues to spread across the globe, even into such unlikely locales as the Middle East, we Americans, including we Californians, seem to be increasingly willing to trade it away for other values, such as security - however we may define it - political correctness or economic gain.

Rarely do aspiring officeholders promise to protect individual rights. Frequently, we hear them promise protection against some threat real or imagined. Those on the right talk about security from crime or terrorists, or upholding "family values," while those on the left want to regulate every aspect of economic and social life - even to dictating what nicknames high school athletic teams cannot adopt. And every day, we see new examples of how rights of individuals are subjugated to those other priorities. We see it in the contradictory and probably pointless processing of airline passengers and their luggage, treating little old lady travelers as if they were aspiring terrorists.

We see it in California State University, East Bay's cowardly insult to a brilliant Latino writer, Richard Rodriguez. It invited Rodriguez to be its commencement speaker, then more or less withdrew the invitation after some students and faculty, who dislike Rodriguez's individualistic views on affirmative action and bilingual education, threatened to boycott ceremonies.

We see it in a federal prosecutor's nonsensical pursuit of two reporters, including a threat of imprisonment, for refusing to identify sources of a story, a clear violation - sanctioned, sadly, by the Supreme Court - of the First Amendment's free press guarantees.

We see it in the proliferation of bills in the Legislature that harass law-abiding firearms owners, supposedly in the name of battling crime but really just because some folks have a cultural aversion to guns and their owners.

We see it in denying - again, because of a cultural aversion - those of differing sexual orientations the right to pursue their happiness via marriage.

We see it in laws that purport to protect politics from undue influence by special interests but limit legitimate political expression and merely drive interest influence underground.

We see it in local governments' seizure of private property for land developers, supposedly to boost economic activity and tax revenues, thereby distorting beyond recognition the Constitution's limitation of "takings" to public purposes.

A society founded upon the principle of personal rights is, almost by definition, not a society free of offensive intrusions or social conflicts.

Free speech, even adoption of a high school mascot, may be offensive to some, but it forces us to think about issues of the day. Oddly, the legislator who wants to regulate mascots because they may offend some is a vociferous advocate of gay marriage, which offends others.

A free press may be intrusive and even irresponsible, but it also is a check on official malfeasance and a civic educator. Strangely, however, many newspaper editorialists who cherish their First Amendment rights also advocate abridging the Second Amendment rights of gun owners.

The competition for jobs and products in a market economy may be stressful, but it provides opportunity for those not born to wealth. Stubborn property owners may thwart grandiose local development schemes, but property rights were a major driver of the Declaration of Independence.

Finally, free movement of goods and people may make America more vulnerable to terrorism than would be a Singapore, which even bans gum-chewing, but it's vital to a modern civilization.

If the price of personal liberty is less-than-perfect protection from life's vicissitudes, it's a price well worth paying.


Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,


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