On Government Signs and Civil Society

by Charles C. W. Cooke

The Weekly Standard’s John McCormack shares a picture from Washington, D.C.

I accept that this is only a sign. But it does seem to betray a certain government attitude toward civil society. The First Amendment is not a summer camp, it is a negative right that constrains government from action. The above memorial is an open space in which people may speak, protest, assemble, and petition for redress of grievances without a permit or the permission of the state. Because this is not France, they may pray there, too. “First Amendment Activities” is a peculiar phrase to describe the status quo.

Our government is intended to do certain things that individuals cannot – and to do little else besides. This arrangement is intended to leave ample space for civil society, in which people may speak without impediment, pray to whichever God they choose or to none at all, keep and bear arms for their defense, enter into contracts, and associate how they wish. But this, alas, is not how everybody sees it. Indeed, apologists for activist government seem to see individual rights as being something that one indulges in — as a sort of hobby. You’re religious? Well, go to church once a week by all means, but don’t live out your faith in any meaningful way, or expect the social-engineering projects of the state to attempt to accomodate it. You have a gun? Okay, well you can go to the range once a week or go hunting, sure. But don’t expect to be able to defend yourself with the weapons you choose, or to be able to do anything without a rigorous permitting system. You want to speak freely? Okay, well do so over there — but please try and keep it respectful.

The above sign is certainly not a one-off. In a number of national parks, there are designated ”First Amendment Areas.” This has always irritated me. The Bill of Rights itself subverts the logic of the pre-amended Constitution by implying that the government can do everything except that which is forbidden, rather than only those things it is enumerated to do. “First Amendment Areas” take this even further, implying that there are special zones in which one may exercise one’s rights but that everywhere else is fair game. It should come as no surprise that the prevalence of this attitude has led inexorably to incidents such as this . . . 

The Corner

The one and only.