Freedom snuffed out

Debra J. Saunders

10/31/2001 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
As the rest of America fears anthrax attacks from anonymous correspondents, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry is galvanized to go after an unestablished health threat. She wants to outlaw smoking in L.A. city parks and recreational facilities. Perry explained yesterday that she sees smoking in parks as "a public health issue." Smokers endanger park-goers with asthma or hypertension, they throw cigarette butts into sandboxes, and they leave cigarette butts everywhere. Hence, a ban. On the issue of cigarette butts, Perry has a point. The answer, however, would be to ban smoking at playgrounds. Few would object. Unsightly cigarette butts? Fine smokers who leave them behind. Make it a big fine. But the health argument is tortured -- and it shows a desire to outlaw smoking everywhere they can, whether it makes sense or not. (Ken August of California Health Services said, "From the Health Department's perspective, any exposure to second-hand smoke is harmful." But anti-smoking advocates acknowledged that there has been little research on the subject.) Hey, if second-hand smoke is harmful to people outdoors, fellow park-goers can ask the smoker to move. If the smoker won't move, non-smokers can move. Smokers, after all, also pay taxes that fund parks. They have rights. Not that Perry seemed to notice. Ditto Sonya Vasquez, chairperson of the Committee for Smoke-Free Parks. Vasquez said that her biggest issue isn't the health of park-goers, it's that adult smokers are bad role models for kids. Too bad she's not content to nag. She instead advocates outlawing non-role-model behavior. Vasquez explained: "I'm not saying that they don't have a right to smoke. My personal opinion is that, in an environment where you have an enormous amount of people, the majority of whom don't smoke, it should be the majority versus the minority who are doing a behavior that's hurting someone else." So forget freedom. Majority rules. Minorities submit. The parks aren't big enough for smokers and nonsmokers. She added, "It shouldn't be people's right to do something that negatively affects me or you or children." Actually, rights do give people a right to "negatively affect" others, I replied. Free speech, for example, allows others to say things I find offensive. To which Vasquez, no constitutional scholar, responded: "Free speech is: You can talk about something as long as you are not offending somebody or hurting somebody." Figure freedom's just another word for nothing really learned. Or freedom is only for good people doing good things -- and Perry and Vasquez get to decide what's good. And not just in terms of smoking. If litter is the issue, I asked Perry, why not ban soft drinks? I see cans in parks. Not to worry. Perry also wants to ban the sale of "junk food" at city parks and rec facilities. Latinos and African Americans, she added, "suffer disproportionately" from health problems related to high-sodium and high-fat foods. I guess you run for office so that you can pass busybody laws. You use a health pretext where you can. You cite polls where health isn't an issue. (Vasquez tells me about 60 percent of people polled want to outlaw smoking in parks.) Oh, and you always can invoke "the children." And if people don't want to be like you -- well, it's their bad luck not to be elected officials. Book 'em.