Sunday, May 28, 2006

On License, Liberty and the Pursuit of Attorney General Richard Blumenthal

For those who do not understand the difference between license and liberty, license involves annoying and sometimes unnecessary restrictions; liberty, in the immortal words of Huck Finn, is doing or saying what you think is right.

License hems in by countless fine print, all written by Yale or Harvard lawyers. Liberty is a Charles Ives symphony, two bands playing martial music passing each other in the night like boisterous ships in opposite directions. Liberty is as free and open as an American garden; license is an English garden – orderly, precise, jackbooted. Liberty feels and sounds like a family discussion around an American supper table on some festive occasion, noisy and borderless. Like the American garden, such conversations are free ranging and diverse, to make use of a much abused word: Here a wildflower is sunk in a field of unkempt grass, nestled by a rushing brook that waters the roots of a hundred year old oak casting its shade over the sun speckled landscape. The American garden incorporates unruly natural elements; the English garden, like the English club, depends upon exclusion.

Our U.S. Constitution, it is often said – mostly by the inspired geniuses who wrote it and others who are determined that the rights cited in it should not be constricted by clever Harvard lawyers – is a constitution of liberty. The authors of the constitution did not say everything in it, but they said the one needful thing: that the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of liberty, and in matters of speech, assembly and worship, the wide door of liberty should as a rule remain open to all.

Liberty without license is anarchy. You cannot have a garden and permit nature to run wild. The Rule of Law requires a careful balancing of the two.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal may have a somewhat different opinion about all this, and his opinions ordinarily would rate as one among many diverse views in this the land of liberty – were it not for his position in government.

Blumenthal’s opinions have the force of law behind them; they say, in so many words, “This issue now has been concluded, and there is no need for further discussion.” The attorney general has been content to play the unbending, perfectly proper aunt at the supper table. “There will be no talk about politics or religion here,” says the aunt, and all tongues fall silent. The Charles Ives’ music disappears and is replaced by a harmless, but well ordered, primrose garden. At the aunt’s word, everything and everybody falls into line.

It is a perfection of irony that Blumenthal, so like a carefully tended English garden himself, now has put his foot down on a license plate that has offended some dusty aunts so severely that they have issued a complaint through their state representative to the Department of Motor Vehicles. According to the complaint, the plate (shown above) -- which sports two smiling cartoon faces of children beneath which is scrawled the message “choose life” in a child’s hand -- carries an insidious message. Are not the words “choose life” the slogan of the anti-abortion crowd?

Maybe so, maybe not -- but should we not be erring on the side of the First Amendment?

The pro-abortion community and the adoption community certainly do have interests that clash. By definition, abortion is the termination of an unwanted birth, resulting of course in the termination of an unwanted child. Abortion therefore limits adoption, because adoption involves the care of an unwanted child. If all unwanted children are aborted, there will be no adoptees for couples who may choose to care for them. All vanity plates are advertisements, and in this one the antagonists have touched gloves, as the fighters say.

A complaint made by Mr. Jim Young of Cornwall Bridge to state Rep. Roberta Willis alleged that the offending plate promoted “a specific religious belief.” That unsupported fear was a little far fetched for DMV officials. But the DMV added in an e-mail to Willis “the allegation by Mr. Young that the sponsoring organization does not currently have a base of operation in Connecticut does raise a legitimate concern in DMV's opinion.”

Enter Blumenthal, who lately has done a great deal of yeomanry work for the anti-anti-abortion lobby. Although Blumenthal claims to be indifferent to the message that so upset Mr. Young, he let it be known in a press interview that "Not every organization has a right to specialized license plates. They can be issued only to members of a qualified organization. And it demeans and degrades the value and legitimacy of such license plates if they are issued to groups that fail to qualify."

The offending organization quickly produced a previous letter of commendation from Blumenthal that read in part, “Please extend my deepest appreciation and admiration to your members for the outstanding work that they do in advocating that every abandoned child should have a home with adoptive parents who love that child unconditionally.” Blumenthal now has launched an inquiry expected to last several weeks -- by which time the organization praised by Blumenthal as advocate of abandoned children will have run out of money.

And what of the presumption in favor of the First Amendment? Successive orders imposed by ambitious attorney generals and the courts have made an English garden of the First Amendment.
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