Rights Are Neither Free Nor Absolute

Some issue advocates have pontificated recently with imaginative declarations about their new “rights.”  They avoid acknowledging the limitations of such rights and the burden that each new right imposes on the rest of society.  Because of the unaddressed burdens, we should not leap to accept assertions of new rights.

In actions justified by their “right to be unoffended,” some college students, college administrators and activist professors are banning the voices of those with whom they disagree.  Although this is a clear suppression of the free speech rights of others, they attempt to justify their intolerance by claiming the objectionable speech is demeaning to a religion, or racist, sexist, ageist, ableist, or other politically correct standard.  None of these meets the “yelling fire in a crowded theater” standard for banning speech.  Colleges where this hyper-protective speech code is practiced set a list of topics that are off limits or that require an advance “trigger warning” so that students can escape hearing topics that might upset them.

In those colleges, students miss a wider understanding of the real world and a chance to gain skill defending their own views.  Those with views outside the mainstream are silenced by the “right to be unoffended.”  In colleges supported by taxpayer money, the right to free speech should be of higher priority in than any “right to be unoffended.”

In Europe, a “right to be forgotten” has gained support under EU law.  This new right is derived from the right to privacy and allows someone who is referenced in digital records or articles to demand that Internet search operators suppress that information.  In other words, the new right forces search operators to revise history.  Compliance with this obligation imposes administrative and operational costs on the search operator and shortchanges the public with results that are intentionally incomplete.  Enthusiasts of the right to be forgotten are unconcerned by the costs and inaccuracies imposed on everyone else.  Of course, with an order from the EU court, law enforcement can obtain un-redacted information on those with embarrassing or inconvenient history.

We all favor protection of personal privacy, and in the US, privacy is one of the natural rights that precludes unreasonable searches and seizures in our homes, papers, and vehicles and effects.  Privacy also shows up as part of our private property rights in that we have a right to private use of our residence and property.  But the right to privacy is not absolute. In the US, the social contract creates a right to exercise general police powers to defend the community and enforce the laws. That sets up potential for conflict. A court order specifies when the right to privacy is subservient to police powers used in pursuit of the public’s right to life and property.

In the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, privacy is referenced in Article 12 as “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family…”  The Declaration’s Article 29 subjects the rights to accommodating other rights and a public safety exception — “In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations…by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare.”

Rights are not absolute nor can they be imposed unilaterally.  They need to be framed in alignment with the public’s willingness to bear the cost and effort they require for enforcement.  They also must be subject to law enforcement’s pursuit of public safety and the exercise of our other rights.  When we hear new demands for “rights,” we should first ask how their costs and conflicts with other rights will be handled.

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