The Corner

Re: Thongs Near Mosques

An e-mail:

Actually, I am for the government cracking down. Had government not forty years ago abandoned its cracking down on indecency, we would all be in better shape today. Now, I would prefer that it be local government doing the cracking down. And I’m sure that government (local, state, or national) cannot bear exclusive or even primary responsibility in this area. Government’s role must be subsidiary: supporting the norms informally enforced by families, religious communities, etc. And prudence will sometimes counsel restraint. But what we’ve leaned over the past forty years, is that when government abandons the field, the institutions of civil society cannot by themselves maintain the norms. Indecency, when tolerated in a society like ours, flourishes; and it imposes large and variegated social costs. But someone will ask: Is it worth sacrificing free speech to avoid these costs? Conceiving the problem as a trade-off between free speech and public morality seems to me to misconceive it. The public display of buttocks, etc., isn’t even remotely the subject that is protected by our constitutional commitment to freedom of speech. To suppose otherwise is to trivialize free speech. That free speech is today so widely trivialized in precisely this way is a testament to William J. Brennan’s skills at witchcaft.


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