|Clarence Thomas, for the Parents|
By Quin Hillyer
Thursday, June 30 2011
One reason Supreme Court watching can be a fascinating enterprise is because diametrically opposing sides of a case sometimes both can be, in a supra-legal sense, correct. One such decision occurred this week in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants, when a 7-2 majority ruled unconstitutional a California law banning the sale or rental of “violent video games” directly to minors without parental involvement.
The case did not lend itself to tidy philosophical divisions, and its implications should give pause even to those celebrating the video-game makers’ victory on free-speech grounds.
As often occurs, the most interesting opinion came from the great Justice Clarence Thomas, who again proved, admirably, to be an intellectual iconoclast. Thomas, joined by no other justice, dissented from Antonin Scalia’s majority decision on grounds both originalist and steeped in natural law.
Before going further, please allow a personal disclaimer. I’m usually a sucker for any law or custom providing parents a greater ability to protect their children from things the parents perceive as harms. Yet months ago, before I had paid any attention to this case, I found that a good friend of mine is involved professionally with the video-game makers – and, after listening to him describe the companies’ First Amendment claims, I thought their legal case sounded strong despite my own inclination on non-legal grounds to stand with parental protective prerogatives.
Not wanting to be thus conflicted, I avoided a close legal analysis of my own, either before or after the decision was rendered. I’m still not sure which side has the better legal argument, although my brain tends toward protecting, Scalia-like, the First Amendment. But the details and ultimate legal correctness of this particular decision are not at issue in this column.
Instead, what is remarkable is the power and eloquence of Justice Thomas’ dissent – and the consistency of his assertions to this effect for a full quarter-century. His central thesis is that neither the First Amendment nor any other provision of law supersedes the fundamental right of parents or legal guardians to protect their children, nor supersedes a government’s interest in protecting the parents’ ability to do so.
“The practices and beliefs of the founding generation,” he wrote, and then demonstrated at great length, “establish that the ‘freedom of speech,’ as originally understood, does not include a right to speak to minors (or a right of minors to access speech) without going through the minors’ parents or guardians.” This is consistent with his assertions in several cases beginning with Troxel v. Granville in 2000 that “parents have a fundamental constitutional right to rear their children, including the right to determine who shall educate and socialize them.”
Apart from the details of the video-game case, which may or may not involve threats to that fundamental right, it should be inarguable that such a right does adhere to parents (or legal guardians), and that protection of that right is essential to this nation’s ordered liberty. This is key: Rights apply not directly to children, but to them only through their parents. A law which prohibits parental authority (except in cases of abuse) violates this understanding (which predates and underlies the Constitution); while a law that aids parents in asserting such authority, without imposing the state’s own judgment, ordinarily is consonant with the Constitution.
As Thomas noted in his dissent in Brown, all the way back to and even before the founding, “the law imposed age limits on all manner of activities that required judgment and reason.” It still does so today, so that courts have upheld even such dubious strictures as a drinking age (21) that is above the otherwise legal age of majority (18).
For Justice Thomas, the roots of this belief are, yes, intellectual, but also deeply personal. It so happens that in the course of executing a cross-country move a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a text version of a Heritage Foundation lecture I had saved (and forgotten) since 1987, by none other than the pre-judicial Clarence Thomas. There, he described his own upbringing as foundational to his views:
“School, discipline, hard work, and knowing right from wrong were of the highest priority. Crime, welfare, slothfulness, and alcohol were enemies. But these were not issues to be debated by keen intellectuals, bellowed about by rousing orators, or dissected by pollsters and researchers. They were a way of life…. I must add that my grandparents enforced the no-debate rule [about any of this]….Of course, I thought my grandparents were too rigid and their expectations were too high. But… this was not their social policy, it was their family policy.”
And, as he made clear in his speech, it was good policy, and entirely within his grandparents’ rightful prerogatives.
A court infringes on these prerogatives only at some risk to the social and constitutional fabric.
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