Principles of liberty

Wednesday, May 12, 1999

(Editor’s note: This editorial ran in The Fresno (Calif.) Bee on May 2, 1999. Reprinted by permission.)

Rights guaranteed by First Amendment are constitutional cornerstones, not restraints.

The controversy that led to the cancellation of Marilyn Manson’s concert cannot pass without a constitutional postscript on some of the comments made in the interest of looking out for our children.

One Fresno City Council member said the issue was not about the First Amendment. Of course it was. A parent who spoke at the Tuesday council meeting said the First Amendment is not as important as young people. It is if we wish those young people to grow up to enjoy the blessings of liberty.

Those who voiced their disgust with Manson and his scheduled performance in Fresno were understandably concerned about their children. They are to be commended for publicly speaking their minds — a right they owe to the First Amendment.

Nonetheless, the implication that the First Amendment is somehow an obstacle to exercising parental responsibility is troublesome. This isn’t a matter of choosing one over the other. Protecting children and protecting the First Amendment are imperatives that can — and must — co-exist.

Parents have the power to determine what their children are exposed to, what activities they will engage in and what kind of citizens they will turn out to be. Granted, there are no guarantees on the latter, and increasing societal and media influences do present parental challenges in the trying-but-most-often-rewarding task of raising children.

Ironically, many of the pleas for legislative action to keep these evils from our youth come from the same people who preach endlessly about individual responsibility and government intervention in our lives. They cringe at the thought of the entire “village” having a hand in raising their children — unless it’s their own hand acting with the coercive power of the state to dictate the behavior of others.

We ingrain in our children the importance of principles and the greater lesson in each of them, and teach them that sometimes we have to defend the rights of people whose words and actions we disagree with. Yet the First Amendment, in this case, was a forgotten doctrine or, in the more appalling view of some, one that only muddled the issue. (Don’t you hate it when the Constitution gets in the way of doing what only my group knows is best for us?)

Tuesday’s stream of speakers to the council podium was an opportunity for citizens to express their beliefs, convictions and frustrations. That is a celebration of the First Amendment.

However, the council’s “condemning” resolution was nothing more than “feel-good” politics. No smart “politician” was going to get in the way of the huge public sentiment that also condemned Manson and his ilk. But real leaders would have sorted out the situation in much better terms, pointing out personal abhorrence for the performer in question while standing more firmly by the founding principles of our country.

Marilyn Manson detractors can reasonably argue that the strong message aired at Tuesday’s meeting accomplished its intent and played a role in pressuring the shock-rocker to think twice about his scheduled May 4 concert. Perhaps it did, and in the end Manson opponents got their wish: He’s postponed his appearance in Fresno — for now.

Don’t be surprised, however, if this battle is fought again. Marilyn Manson might return. Others who test our sense of decency will surface, with an audience and a desire to perform in Fresno. We need to think about this experience the next time we exercise our right to “freedom of speech” or to “peaceably … assemble” or to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”