When State Officials Prefer Natural Law to the Constitution

October 4, 2007

The pressure on Central Connecticut State University’s (CCSU’s) President John Miller regarding a controversial cartoon in the student newspaper just went up. According to Fernando Betancourt of the State of Connecticut’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, President Miller not only has to answer to the First Amendment, he now has to face the “natural law.” In a public letter, supported by a press release, Betancourt argues that this “natural law” supercedes the “positive law” of the First Amendment:

For those that claim the right to a protection under positive law, we express our right to the protection of a higher and inalienable right under natural law to our dignity and humanity.

So repression of “offensive” speech is a moral imperative arising from natural law? It may be true that people have a natural right to dissolve their government when, say, it regularly subverts the “unalienable rights” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s a matter of revolution. Maybe people also have a natural right to commit civil disobedience when a law seems unjust, and then face the consequences of the illegal action. But we’re talking about a cartoon here. Is the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission (LPRAC) of the State of Connecticut asking President Miller to break the law and subvert the Constitution because of a cartoon?

It seems that way. Miller has rightly asserted that CCSU may not officially punish the newspaper for its protected expression. Yet, while acknowledging certain limits on his ability to take action, the LPRAC claims to “understand that you have the authority to take immediate actions concerning the status of this entity as it pertains to an organization that… receive[s] material support from the students and the community.” To be clear: Miller has no authority under the Constitution to violate the First Amendment rights of CCSU students. While the LPRAC might not understand this critical fact, it seems that Miller thankfully does.

Again, this is a cartoon. But Betancourt takes the cartoon, together with an earlier controversial piece, to be a “type of orchestrated and systematic discrimination.” Betancourt suggests that “acts” like the publication of the cartoon are “invitations to violence and to participate in the degradation of females in our society.” Take a look at the cartoon and decide for yourself if you see an invitation to violence.

The letter also argues that “the U. S. Supreme Court has ruled on many occasions in favor of the Freedom of Expression, but always within the parameters of a civilized society.” I am interested to know what cases the State of Connecticut’s LPRAC is thinking about. As we wrote in our letter to President Miller, many expressions that might be deemed offensive and uncivilized have been protected in rulings by the Supreme Court.

Of course, even if one grants its premise about natural law, the LPRAC’s argument avoids the crucial question. Who gets to determine precisely what is and is not “civilized”? To our country’s lasting fortune and health, the answer provided by the Constitution is simple: “Not the government.” The positive law protects us from those who would take the natural law into their own hands. For if there is one thing the First Amendment means, it is that the government does not have the power to regulate the speech of its citizens on the basis of content.

When a state agency like the LPRAC argues otherwise, it is outrageous.