ShareThis Page
Featured Commentary

A few touchy topics

| Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Here's a question: What is the true test of one's commitment to freedom of expression? Is it when one permits others to express ideas with which he agrees? Or is it when he permits others to express ideas he finds deeply offensive? I'm betting that most people would wisely answer that it's the latter, and I'd agree.

How about this question: What is the true test of one's commitment to freedom of association? Is it when people permit others to freely associate in ways of which they approve? Or is it when they permit others to freely associate in ways they deem despicable? I'm sure that might be a considerable dispute about freedom of association compared with the one over freedom of expression. To be for freedom in either case requires that one be brave enough to accept the fact that some people will make offensive expressions and associate in offensive ways. Let's explore this with an example from the past.

In 1958, Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a black woman, two Virginia residents, traveled to Washington, D.C., to marry. Upon their return to Virginia, they were charged with and found guilty of violating Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia, held that laws banning interracial marriages violated the equal-protection and due-process clauses of the 14th Amendment. The couple's conviction was reversed. Thus, Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws not only violated the U.S. Constitution but also violated the basic human right of freedom of association.

Now let's ask ourselves: Would Virginia's laws have been more acceptable if, instead of banning interracial marriages, they had mandated interracial marriages? Any decent person would find such a law just as offensive — and for the same reason: It would violate freedom of association. Forced association is not freedom of association.

Here's another case from our past. Henry Louis Mencken, writing in The Baltimore Evening Sun (1 19/48), brought to light that the city's parks board had a regulation forbidding white and black citizens from playing tennis with each other in public parks. Today most Americans would find such a regulation an offensive attack on freedom of association. I imagine that most would find it just as offensive if the regulation had required blacks and whites to play tennis with each other. Both would violate freedom of association.

Suppose white men formed a club, a professional association or any other private association and blacks and women wanted to be members. Is there any case for forcing them to admit blacks and women? What if it were women or blacks who formed an association? Should they be forced to admit men or whites?

Much of the racial discrimination in our history was a result of legal or extralegal measures to prevent freedom of association. That was the essence of Jim Crow laws, which often prevented blacks from being served in restaurants, admitted into theaters, allowed on public conveyances and given certain employment. Whenever one sees laws or other measures taken to prevent economic transactions, you have to guess that the reason there's a law is that if there were no law, not everyone would behave according to the specifications of the law.

Walter Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me