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I am a grouchy, bald headed old fart filled with opinions and not the least bit shy about sharing them.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Civil Rights, Human Rights, Perceived Rights and Vanishing Rights

A friend posted a question in her blog that got me to contemplating individual rights held by citizens of the United States. This post is the result of those thoughts.

There are many versions of rights depending on who you are talking to. To begin with, let us sort these rights out. Then we will take a look at responsibility that goes with rights and what is happening to those rights.


In the United States, we have legal rights guaranteed under the constitution, brought about through legislation and brought down from the bench through case law.

Rights guaranteed under the United States Constitution

The right to free speech is a constitutional right. So is the the right to choose your religion and a free press. These rights come form the Third Article in the Bill of Rights that we more commonly know as the First Amendment. Constitutional rights, most of which were granted by the founding fathers, are the very frame work our government is supposed to operate from. We depend on police, our lawmakers, the president and, if need be, the courts to protect and enforce them for us.

Civil rights born from case law

The Miranda Warning is one example of rights granted from the bench rather then congress or the constitution. It came from an appeal to the United States Supreme Court in the case of Miranda v. Arizona. The appeal consolidated several instances across the country where suspects in police custody were questioned and coerced into making damaging statements without being old of their right to remain silent and right to an attorney. The high court declared this practice a violation of the fifth and sixth amendment rights granted in the bill of rights. The result is the now famous, "You have the right to remain silent..." speech we all know and love from decades of police dramas.

Civil rights granted through statutory law.

The Fair Housing Act in all its incarnations is one example of rights granted by legislation. The original law was passed by congress and signed by President Johnson. From that day forward discrimination by landlords or sellers on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin was forbidden by federal law opening all neighborhood doors to everyone. Over the years many additions have been made to the Fair Housing Act making the rights under it more muddied and difficult to discern when the property owner's rights conflict with those of a prospective tenant.

Personal Rights (a/k/a "human rights")

These are rights that most of us in the United States simply seem to agree on and exist through mass acceptance rather then through force of law. The right to be treated with a certain amount of courtesy by our peers is one of these personal rights. The right to speak up if you feel that you are being mistreated is another.

Thousands of shades of gray and blurry lines make up various versions of human rights expressed here in the United States. The list of "human rights" changes on a daily basis depending on who the players are and what circumstances surrounding the event in question. At one time the death of three pirates holding a United States citizen at gun point would never be questioned. Now there are people right here in the United States making noises about excessive force and shooting to kill rather then to wound.

But this list of personal rights is in perpetual flux depending on current company and circumstances. Depending on who you ask, the list of personal rights can be very short or almost infinite. That makes it very hard to separate human rights from perceived rights. I've never talked to two people that share the same list.


One of many problems with the United States at the moment is that many people are real big on their "rights" without having a clue what actually is and is not a legal right. Not only are they big on those "rights" but a surprising number make them up as they go along.

Take for example the remarkably large number of people that somehow got it in their heads they have a right to "share" their music with perfect strangers in wholesale fashion on line. The people originally putting the music up on the web see the CD as their property to do with as they please. After all, they paid for it. The people downloading the music don't see a moral problem because nothing physical is being taken. It is not like they went shoplifting at Wal-Mart and most see anything on the internet it is free for the taking. Others have professed that on line music sharing is not a crime because it is copyright infringement which is a civil matter, not a criminal matter which somehow makes it all right.

Some people in positions of authority are granting themselves rights that never have existed and never should. And we the sheep are going along with it because no one takes a moment to think about the ramifications. In the past year stories of public school administrators dictating student behavior off campus and outside of school supervised events have become more prevalent. Numerous districts dictate that a student may not have any web presence at all. No blogs, no public comments, no Facebook or MySpace. Violation of that policy can result in expulsion. Public school administrators somehow got the idea they have a right to override the first amendment while students are on their own time away from school. Go figure...

Other school districts have unsuccessfully attempted to regulate student's off campus television watching, movie watching and video game playing. One school system tried and failed to issue a district wide policy that called for the expulsion of any student that handled any firearm, even on a family hunting trip. But these attempts are coming up more and more often. Without someone willing to stand up and say something, eventually, these examples and more will come to reality.

Union leadership have adopted the position their membership has a right wages and benefits far above the non-union prevailing wage for the same job. Not only do they think that right is carved in stone, but that right is applicable even if it drives their employers out of business. In addition to that, those some union leaders seem to think they have the right to a monopoly on what ever trade they practice. Don't think so? Try running a non-union television shoot in New York City.


With our rights come a great deal of responsibility. Almost everyone and the courts agree that yelling fire in a crowded theater is not protected free speech. That decision and others like it are part of the balance of rights and responsibility.

Yet somehow a very large number of us lost sight of that one basic part of the equation. We are all too quick to scream loudly at some real or perceived violation of our rights, while at the same time being almost ignorant of the responsibilities that go with those rights.

The right to free speech comes with the responsibility to speak responsibly. Sadly many see the right to free speech as moral license to bash anything they disagree with through blogs, forums and e-mails regardless of whether or not what they are saying is true. Most of these people don't bother to check their sources or facts. They simply regurgitate the latest and greatest noise from the Daily Koss because that is what all the cool kids are doing. Others know what they are spewing is pure fiction, but spew on because they are making "a better world." The ends justifies the means, after all.

The New York Times has a constitutionally guaranteed right to publish facts and opinion. This is especially true when those facts and opinion are about government. However, in their role of Al Queda's US Intelligence Arm, they exercised that right with zero consideration for responsibility when they printed details of several active intelligence operations that were crippling terrorist activities all over the world. In the case of the now infamous warrant-less wiretaps, the New York Times used their opinion page, twisted facts and innuendo to paint a false picture of what was really going on with international wire taps. That lead the masses to believe that the United States government was listening to all cell phone calls at will without bothering to check with the courts.

The responsibly that goes with Freedom of the press began its slide into oblivion in the 1960s. For example there was a time in this country the President's private life was his own and the press pretty much ignored what he did on his own time. President Kennedy is a prime example. Now the press is all over the President like barely held in check paparazzi. Look at Clinton and Monica for one example. The blue dress and Bill's fun and games really had no bearing on the country's business. Even running for President is hazardous as Gary Hart found out while playing patty-cake with Donna Rice on board a yacht appropriately named "Monkey Business."


Morality aside, our rights as perceived by the public and the authorities are changing. Several of our constitutionally guaranteed rights are under siege right now.

The right to keep and bear arms is in serious jeopardy right now from both state and federal lawmakers. The worse of those threats is a far left Congress and a far left President that will rubber stamp anything Congress hands him. Just a couple days ago the President mentioned that something has to be done about the flow of guns from the US in to Mexico using fictitious numbers to back his position setting the stage for another round of do nothing gun restrictions.

The right to free speech is at risk on several fronts. Applying the Fairness Doctrine to radio talk shows and news networks is one avenue. Congressional attempts to limit some political action groups, in particular energy and industrial groups, while federally funding others (think ACORN) is an enormous threat to the balance of free speech, political power and government.

The right to keep a majority of what we earn is threatened in the name of redistribution of wealth and social engineering. The liberty to make simple life choices, like what kind of car to drive and which TV set we want are all at risk in the name of the global warming myth.

There are some that welcome these losses of freedom. An unprecedented number of people believe that CEO and upper management salaries are too high and government should step in to set limits. Those people see no problem with levying confiscatory taxes on executives, industry and products in order to effect social change. In reality that is nothing more then abridging the freedom to choose your own life style. The right pursue life, liberty and happiness is clearly not a consideration in these misguided efforts.


The United States is at a fork in the path, if we have not all ready taken the turn. The 2010 elections will tell us which way we are going when it comes to personal rights, liberty, freedom and they way of life we all now know. I fear that if we don't stop the slide once and for all, the Orwellian form of government some people think is already here will become a reality.

Too many have lost sight of the fact that freedom in a truly free country also includes the freedom to fail.

- 30 -

Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
- Benjamin Franklin

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