The Attack on Civil Liberties

by Ari Armstrong

April 30, 1999. More by Independence Institute authors on Columbine.

The vast majority of the Colorado community has responded to the tragedy at Columbine High School with grace, courage, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness. Unfortunately, an undercurrent of reactionary Big Brotherism following the tragedy threatens to weaken our civil liberties.

The Attack on the Freedom of Speech

In a group discussion with President Clinton April 23, one student asked what the Federal government can do to control the content of the Internet. It turns out that Eric Harris, one of the killers, maintained a web page drenched in hate. Harris reportedly shared information on how to make bombs over the Internet.

Rights can be abused, but the alternative to a free society is one in which Big Brother gets to decide what speech is acceptable and what is not. Of course, the right of speech hardly implies that law enforcers cannot follow publicized comments and use such comments in their investigations. At one point, Harris published a "hit list" on his public internet site that included the name of at least one other Columbine student. The threatened student shared this information with the police.

Parents also retain rights to monitor their children's behavior. Harris's parents were fully capable of monitoring their son's activities, and his public documents, and taking preventative action. Apparently, they failed to do so.

The Federal government could control the Internet, but it ought not. When we the people confer upon the government the ability to restrict our freedom of speech, the line defining "acceptable" speech will continually be redrawn according to government fiat. We must protect evil speech from the control of the government so that the beautiful, the enlightened, the unusual, and the genius can also thrive.

Movies and music have also been targeted by some. Individuals have every right to speak out against music and films they find offensive. However, public criticism should not turn to calls for censorship or violence. The Rocky Mountain News published a letter to the editor April 22 which reads, "Marilyn Manson, along with all other purveyors of filth and violence, Hollywood in particular, should be indicted for murder, convicted and executed." In other words, shred the First Amendment and persecute people for their ideas and words.

While the comment is best interpreted as an isolated, emotionally-charged outburst, it remains disquieting. Who will be the final arbiter of what is "filthy and violent?" Some find movies such as Fargo and Pulp Fiction to be so. Others, however, find in these films strong anti-violence themes and an enlightened commentary on the human condition. That's why we have free speech, so that we can agree to disagree. We maintain freedom of religion for precisely the same reason.

The Attack on the Right of Self-Defense

In two events organized by Denver Mayor Wellington Webb (who has no jurisdiction in Littleton), speakers disparaged the right of self-defense, calling for more onerous restrictions on the Second Amendment right to own firearms. The National Rifle Association was demonized, as were Colorado legislators who defend gun rights.

State Representative Doug Dean, the sponsor of a bill that would expand the right to carry concealed weapons, received threats at his home and office from some Colorado residents. Some callers even threatened to kill Dean's children. However, there is simply no connection between Dean's proposed legislation and the Columbine slaughter. Indeed, Dean makes a compelling case, based on studies from other states with concealed carry laws, that such laws increase public safety by deterring criminals.

But Dean's opponents are not interested in facts, studies, or logic. Guns, gun owners, and civil liberties advocates are to be vilified at all costs in this climate of lynch-mob politics.

The killers already broke numerous laws before even setting foot into Columbine. It is already illegal for minors to possess the handguns the killers carried. It is already illegal to carry firearms onto school property. It is already illegal to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Certainly it is illegal to construct bombs, which the killers made by the dozens. If anything we need better enforcement of the laws already on the books.

A fundamental problem in the Columbine tragedy is that the parents of the killers failed to prevent their children from acting in blatantly illegal and dangerous ways. The killers constructed sophisticated bombs in their parents' garage over a period of days. No law in the world can compensate for such gross abnegation of parental responsibility.

It's easy to seek scapegoats in the aftermath of trauma. It's easy for politicians to exploit tragedy for their own political ends. But irrational anger is no substitute for a healthy process of grieving.

Freedom is always at risk, but especially so in times of social turmoil. The wrong way to resolve a crisis is to blindly call for more government control. The right way is to rely on and create voluntary social institutions to heal the wounds.

Ari Armstrong is a research associate with the Independence Institute and the editor of the Colorado Freedom Report at

Other writings from the Independence Institute on Columbine.  

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