Conditional Freedom

December 17, 1990|By James J. Kilpatrick

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA — Charleston, South Carolina. GRANDDAUGHTER ALINA came by the house on a recent Saturday morning. Alina is 14 going on 25. She was wearing a shirt that fit her like a pup tent -- a ghastly garment, purply red, visible for miles.

I asked a reasonable question: ''What,'' I inquired, ''are you doing in that godawful shirt?''

A brief pause. A toss of her pretty head. ''Grandfather,'' said my precocious darling, ''I am making a statement.''

Whereupon she mounted her bicycle and rode off, leaving a train of thought behind. The thought has to do with the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA also deals with adolescents who want to make statements.

This is the point. Alina is free to wear that horrid shirt if she pleases, on her own time, after school and on weekends. Anything to get a rise out of Grandfather.

But if she wants to attend Bishop England High School, she will wear the school's green skirt and white blouse or else. Her freedom of expression stops where the schoolyard begins.

Simple maxims govern: He who pays the piper calls the tune. Benefits are conditional. Privileges come with strings attached. This is the way the world is.

Over the past year I have sounded off half a dozen times on the NEA. In my view, the grants to individual writers, artists, musicians and photographers should be abolished out of hand.

They bear no relationship whatever to the constitutional standard of the ''general'' welfare; they usurp the role of the private marketplace; and they waste the taxpayers' money on special privileges for a precious few.

This year's big squabble over the NEA has involved the business of ''conditions.'' A number of playwrights and artists want the NEA grants, but they abhor the idea of ''conditions.'' They want unfettered freedom to take the grant money and to write, paint, produce plays or make pictures as they please, and to hell with public sensibilities.

Reflecting upon my granddaughter's shirt, I would say, this isn't the way the world is. There always are conditions.

The Federal Communications Commission has rules on decency. Owners of radio stations are free to mouth obscenities if they please, but if they get dirty on the air they may lose their licenses. Conditions.

The same First Amendment that deals with freedom of speech deals also with freedom of religion. We are free to recite the Ten Commandments whenever the spirit moves us, but we cannot post them in a public classroom without inviting an injunction. Freedom comes with conditions.

This very same First Amendment touches upon the freedom peaceably to assemble. Splendid! But the Constitution accords no freedom to the Napa Valley Nudist Club to assemble, au naturel, in a Sacramento park. They must make their statement somewhere else.

Do you recall the case of Capt. Simcha Goldman? He was a clinical psychologist assigned to an Air Force hospital. As an Orthodox Jew he wanted to wear his yarmulke on duty.

In 1986 the case reached the Supreme Court. The court said, nothing doing. On his own time, Captain Goldman could wear his yarmulke just as Alina could wear her shirt, in order to make a statement, but if he wanted to stay in the Air Force he would have to wear the Air Force uniform.


Examples abound. The same Constitution that protects the right of free speech also protects the right to own property.

In the historic district of Charleston, the most powerful agency of government is the Board of Architectural Review (BAR). The other day a gentleman on Orange Street sought permission to tear down part of an old brick wall in order to obtain off-street parking. The BAR said no. If the owner moved out of the historic part of the city, he could have acres of off-street parking, but on Orange Street, no.

Privileges come with strings attached. Conditions.

This is how zoning laws work everywhere. A property owner has certain constitutional rights, but if his thought is to build a glue factory in a residential subdivision, his rights must yield to the larger good.

The NEA may be far removed from the Department of Agriculture, but the same principle applies. Farmers may have a constitutional right to plant crops on every square foot of their land from fence to fence, but if they want subsidies they will have to meet land retirement regulations.

So it goes. The NEA ought to say to mendicant artists, ''Meet our conditions of simple decency or take your work somewhere else. The taxpayers owe you nothing at all.''

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.