A Brief Ethics and Culture Lesson For First Amendment Pedants


Thousands or pundits and web commenters, perhaps hundreds of thousands, in their concerted effort to justify the speech and thought police, (at least as long as the Enforcers are not likely to disapprove of their thoughts and speech), are mocking those who cite the First Amendment as authority for the proposition that the treatment of Donald Sterling, and others, are harmful, sinister, and un-American. The pedants are technically correct, of course. When someone who is fired for posting something offensive on Facebook screams, “My First Amendment right of free speech has been violated!”, that typically speaks of a poor civic education. The Bill of Rights only constrains government action, not private transactions. No rights, which are enumerated and protected from government incursions by the Constitution, have been lost or affected when only private action is involved.

That does not mean, however, that when private action opposes an individual’s Constitutional rights, it is necessarily acceptable, fair, harmless, reasonable or right. Indeed, the government and law serves a crucial function by delineating and encouraging cultural and ethical values. The principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights do not merely constrain government. They form the basis of the ethical values that make the United States a unique culture, and point the way to what Americans, as Americans, regard as right and wrong.

Thus, while searching though a friend’s private e-mail account isn’t a violation of one’s right to privacy under the 10th Amendment, violating a fellow citizen’s privacy is wrong, and the Bill of Rights stands as authority that it is something important to each individual that should be respected. The Constitution and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments won’t and can’t stop Americans like Sterling from being bigots in their private dealings, but they send a clear message that bigotry is not approved by the United States and was not by those who have charted our ethical course. Privately interfering with someone’s right to worship as they please is wrong, and the fact that the government is prevented from doing it tells us so. The First Amendment’s existence also tells us that preserving free speech—open, fearless, speech—is essential to core American values, because it also supports free thought, that which tyrants and dictators fear. Yes, we all have the right to make free speech, thought and discourse costly, difficult and painful, but we should not. We have the right to punish severely the non-conformist, the iconoclast, the rebel, or the citizen who may be a little late, or slow, or reluctant, to accept the conventional wisdom of the moment. We have the right to do it, but it is wrong. It is un-American. The Constitution tells us so.

Addendum: After I wrote the post, I encountered this.


Virginia Campaign Lies: the Unethical Use of the Dishonest “Would”

The next U.S. Senator from Virginia? You could do worse! In fact, Virginia might.

I’m going to vote for Tim Kaine, the ex-Democratic Governor of Virginia running against George Allen, the Republican trying to regain the seat he lost in 2006 to James Webb. After the slimy, dishonest campaign Allen ran against Webb ( full disclosure: I went to law school with the Senator, and know him personally. A more honorable, courageous, principled man doesn’t walk the earth), Allen lost any chance of a vote from me forever, and it wouldn’t matter if his opponent was a toilet brush.

Nonetheless, Kaine’s ads are making me think he’s only a step or two above toilet brush level. Especially outrageous is this line, from a “war on women” ad “approved” by Tim Kaine, intoned by an announcer as the camera shows a woman:

                   “Allen would take away her Constitutional rights by reversing Roe v. Wade.”

Even counting “v.” as a word, this inexcusable statement includes four misrepresentations in just twelve words, an impressive total, though I’m sure Bill Clinton has topped it at one point of another. Let’s see: Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “America’s Untouchables”

Among the many provocative, informative and heart-breaking comments to the Ethics Alarms post about the continued persecution of convicted sex offenders after they have completed their sentences is the following Comment of the Day by Peekachu (not to be confused with the Pokemon of the same name—different spelling). This is obviously an emotional topic for many, and I am somewhat surprised that there have not been any comments in defense of the increasingly restrictive limits placed on the Constitutional rights of sex offenders to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness….perhaps because there is no defense.  I hope to explore this issue more thoroughly in the future, but in the meantime, I urge readers to visit the other comments to the original post, and also to read Ethics Bob Stone’s take on the topic.

Here is the Comment of the Day, by Peekachu, on “America’s Untouchables”: Continue reading