John Leo
If you think, as I do, that we are living in the golden age of dubious legal coercion, there is plenty of evidence to support your view.

Take the anti-smoking movement. After prohibiting most indoor smoking, the activists noticed that people were still trying to smoke outdoors. So various communities banned lighting up in outdoor movie lines, on beaches, in parks, near a school or in any publicly owned space. Alameda County, California, forbids smoking within 15 feet of any window or doorway of any building. Until it became a laughingstock, Maryland's Montgomery County planned to ban smoking even in the smokers' own homes if neighbors were offended.

Reaching into homes intrigues a lot of the new prohibitionists. A New York judge ruled that a divorced woman could not smoke in her own home when her 13-year-old son came to visit. The woman smoked only in her bathroom, but that wasn't good enough for the judge.

Bias cases are another area where the state sometimes tries to regulate the home. In Madison, Wis., a woman was found guilty of refusing to accept a lesbian housemate in a room she rented out. This was a bad ruling, probably unconstitutional too, but the woman lost and had to pay $23,000 in court costs.

Local District C of the Los Angeles school system offers another example of high-minded but foolish coercion: Students are not allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies if they do not agree to go on to college, a trade school, an internship or the military. The district is apparently unable to make a distinction between encouraging college attendance and compelling it.

Scan the newspapers and you will find many other examples of creative coercion. California just passed a law forcing the state's graduate medical students to undergo abortion training, whether they are interested in it or not. There is a narrow opt-out for conscientious objectors, but none for religious hospitals. They will have to "ensure" that medical personnel get abortion training elsewhere.

The great frontier of do-good coercion is the effort to control speech. The European Union intends to ban "racism and xenophobia," "public insults" of minority groups and other materials it finds offensive. The word "racist" could be broadly defined as an aversion to any ethnic group. If so, the European Union would be creating its first thought crimes.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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