Tuesday, March 01, 2005

READER RESPONSE -- Congratulations to February Goodhue Award recipient Larry Shelly

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:56 AM |  

Congratulations to Pioneer Press reader Larry Shelly on being awarded the paper's Goodhue Correspondents Award. The award is presented to the writer of the best letter to the editor received during the month.

Larry's Feb. 2 letter, "We want a smoking ban, not anarchy," took issue with my Jan. 26 column, "Smoking ban debate is about personal liberty." Shelly said --
"It was a really good column in that it was thought-provoking. But it got me upset enough to get off the couch and go to the computer and write something. . . . I found it offensive that he confused important personal liberties — the right to associate, the right to worship — with an activity that is inherently offensive and dangerous to others . . . It's just such a terrible example. I don't think this is what the people who wrote our Constitution had in mind when they thought about personal liberties."
Letters editor Mark Yost notes that Larry’s letter is “exactly the kind of well-argued debate we're looking for in the letters column.” I agree. Indeed, unlike a lot of the knee-jerk response to the smoking ban from supposed professionals that simply regurgitates their talking points, Larry’s letter directly addresses the points of my column. It’s worthy of the award -- and also further debate.

From his comment today, Larry considers smoking bans in private bars and restaurants a terrible example of individual liberty. He doesn’t think it’s what the founders had in mind when they thought about personal liberties. He’s probably right. They also probably weren’t thinking about sodomy or integrated public schools or universal suffrage. They probably never anticipated that an imprisoned vagrant would spark a Supreme Court ruling that all individuals are entitled to an attorney whether they can afford on or not.

Without rearguing the smoking ban as applied to private property (I do not oppose smoking bans in truly public places), the point is personal liberty in small matters is precisely what the Constitution is intended to protect. There is no such thing as an “unimportant” personal liberty.

In a free society, governed by the rule of law, half the time one must defend the right of others to do things that one believes are morally reprehensible, offensive and sometimes even defy common sense.

In his letter, Larry confuses the concepts of “liberty,” “license” and “anarchy.” Of course we have rules that curtail our activities to protect us from others in public places -- speed limits are a sound example; legalized drugs, like smoking bans in private places, is a debatable one (but not here).

It’s the distinction between “private” and “public” that Larry misses, which carries the debate into the realm of personal rights and individual liberties. That’s a message that can’t be stressed too strongly. It is not hyperbole to worry that when good and thoughtful people like Larry can’t make this distinction, the republic is in danger from those who would chip away at individual rights in the name of the collective good.

Here’s his letter in full.

We want a smoking ban, not anarchy

In his Jan. 26 column, "Smoking ban debate is about personal liberty," Craig Westover posits that the crux of the debate is one of personal liberty and concludes that opposition to government restrictions on personal actions is a defense of liberty.

While there is no doubt that personal liberties are a cornerstone of our society, and as citizens we must be vigilant about infringements on our liberties, Westover has picked a poor issue to make his case. He conveniently neglects to consider that restrictions on dangerous activities make for a civilized society.

A society in which there are no restrictions on personal liberty is anarchy — hardly what most Minnesotans aspire to. We accept limitations on countless activities every day.

Should speed limits on residential streets be removed because they restrict our personal freedom? Should we legalize drugs in the name of personal liberty? I think not.

The effort to limit smoking in public places is no different and is certainly not an "inequality that is being rectified by a brutal government."

Just as traffic regulations make us all safer, restrictions on smoking in public places will reduce our exposure to the well-documented health risks of exposure to secondhand smoke.
Again, congratulations to Larry.