We all respect and love the freedom of expression enjoyed by US citizens under the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Most international agreements dealing with civil or political rights also recognize this as a necessary right for free nations (Sylvie Langlaude, ON HOW TO BUILD A POSITIVE UNDERSTANDING OF THE CHILD'S RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION, 10 HUMRLR 33, at 33). Children and minors gain the freedom of expression in international law primarily from Article 13 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (hereafter CRC), which defines “freedom of expression” as the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice.”
The CRC provides only two exceptions to this freedom: the expression must respect the rights and reputation of others, and it must not endanger national security, public security, or public health. Apart from that, at least as far as the CRC is concerned, the right has no other restrictions. If this document is signed and ratified by the United States, it will create a problem for local—and national—policymakers, and a nightmare for local law enforcement.
CRC supporters and enthusiasts have attempted to paint the CRC as a tool which has brought children out of darkness and into the light. The truth is that the free expression clause of the CRC alone has caused irreparable damage physically and academically in member-states who purport its doctrines to their youth. In Scotland, the school systems are having problems with children using “text message language” on academic assignments. According to Judith Gillespie of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, the text message phenomenon of our day has led to a “marked decline” in grammar proficiency. She concludes that “there has been a trend in recent years to emphasize spoken English rather than written language and so pupils think orally and write phonetically. The problem is that there is now a feeling in some schools that pupils’ freedom of expression should not be inhibited, so anything goes. But ‘texting’ must not be allowed to become acceptable written English – it will further erode the language.” Text messaging first appeared in the United Kingdom in 1994; within 15 years, it has become a serious problem for the education system.
Not all accusations against the spread of “free expression,” however, are so mild. The free expression of the child has also been used in Scotland by atheistic organizations to target children who were raised in religious homes, inciting them to reject their parents’ faith not because of lack of merit, but merely because it is an act of free expression. The focus of these groups is not to encourage a meaningful exchange in the marketplace of ideas; it is designed only to entice youths to revolt against their parents’ beliefs for the sake of revolution, not to benefit the child. Campaigns will often include posters which “display some of the labels routinely applied to children that imply beliefs such as Protestant and Sikh mixed with labels that people would never apply to young children such as Marxist, Anarchist, or Libertarian” – this is not the sign of a campaign devoted to helping children discover truth: it only incites to destruction.
Sweden created a law against sexual solicitation in 1999. The law did not stipulate that an individual could not engage in prostitution; it is illegal to buy, but not to sell. The difficulty with this policy, however, is that it allows young people—even children as young as thirteen or fourteen—to sexually solicit themselves online by placing personal, suggestive pictures on the internet without penalty. This has led several groups, including ECPAT International, to release help guides to assist parents in protecting their children from harming themselves.
In the Netherlands, the situation is much worse: children actively engage in sexuality, substance abuse, and alcohol as a means of expressing themselves and “being cool.” Kathryn Westcott, a reporter with the BBC News Network, interviewed Laura Vos, a 16-year-old girl in the Netherlands on the views of Dutch children on alcohol use, sex, and drugs. Her response was shocking: “In this country, it's very free, you can do anything you want. . . . You can smoke at 16, you can buy pot in the store next to the school. You can do what you like and because it's not illegal, it's not that interesting for us to provoke our parents with it.” This insight highlights the difference between their society and America today: American parents are concerned about whether their children smoke, drink, dope, or are sexually active.
According to a study conducted by the World Population Foundation in 2006, almost 30% of boys and girls fifteen years of age in the Netherlands are sexually active, and of those 30%, 92% of boys and 97% of girls have used some form of contraception. Illicit drugs are being used by young people just beyond school grounds. Drinking and smoking are common, and no one is warning them of the threat to their future and present health from these habits. Why is this happening? Because “it’s not that interesting for us to provoke our parents with it.” That is the mindset, and that is the heart of the problem: parents are not involved.
In the Netherlands “free expression” has also included child and adult pornography, both voluntary and commercial. Jan Schuijer and Benjamin Rossen, writing in the Institute for Psychological Therapies (IPT) Journal, note that child pornography has been slowly legalized and legitimized in Dutch society. In the Dutch Supreme Court case Chick-arrest, Hoge Raad (1971), the Court determined that child pornography was only considered “obscene” and “offensive” under Article 240 if “an important majority of the population” agreed (Chick-arrest, Hoge Raad (Supreme Court) 17 November 1970, NJ 1971, 373). Schuijer and Rossen emphasize that “the result was that judges could no longer rely on their intuition to determine if an image was offensive. Furthermore, the opinions of the ‘large majority’ were rapidly becoming more permissive. The effect of this decision was effective elimination of the prohibition on pornography.” By 1984, it was completely legal to distribute child pornography openly, and by that time youths on stage and in movies were able to openly shed their clothes without penalty. That was “free expression.”
Actions such as these have not been prevented by the CRC’s Freedom of Expression Clause. While organizations have petitioned that the CRC be used to provide child safety on the internet, no attempts have been made to combat the use of “free expression” as a reason for placing explicit photos on the internet. I contend that nothing has been done because this is the logical extension of the reasoning present in the CRC’s free expression clause. When CRC activists promote “free expression” they mean precisely that: complete, unhindered access to any and all information available, and the ability to express oneself in any medium without sanctions.
The personal and societal impacts of this philosophy are legion: complete freedom for children in their formative years leads them to experiment with dangerous substances, including tobacco, illicit drugs, and alcohol, during years of critical brain and body development. The impacts of these substances present a hazard to the quality of life which they will enjoy in the future. Because we care about their lives, we limit their freedom of expression.
Anti-smoking and anti-drug campaigns don’t turn to international agreements for effective enforcement and prevention; they call for parental involvement. The desire to protect children is strongest not among government bureaucrats or foreigners working for intergovernmental organizations, but among parents who have loved, nurtured, and invested in their children. The Parental Rights Amendment protects the rights of good parents to be actively involved in their children’s lives in order to protect their children. With these rights coming under fire in recent court decisions, it is absolutely critical that we protect them from erosion and dismissal.
Feminists for Free Expression (hereafter FFE) note that government regulation, internet filtering software, and other impersonal forces cannot adequately protect children. To answer the following question on their website, “If it is technically so difficult to regulate the Internet, how can we protect our children from objectionable material?” FFE beautifully responds, “The only sure way of doing it is through parental guidance, helped by rapidly proliferating new technology.” FFE is not opposed to using helpful tools, and neither am I; we contend, however, that the critical element to success in any endeavor is parental involvement. FFE sums it up well: “FFE not only supports, but encourages parents to guide the reading, viewing, and listening of their children, and to discuss with their children the many ideas they encounter. . . . FFE believes most Americans would prefer to do this themselves rather than let a government committee decide what their children read, watch, and think.” For FFE, refusing to guide the upbringing of your child is the root cause of child neglect, since “parents who neglect this aspect of their kids' lives may neglect them in other ways. It is this neglect that needs addressing.”
It is not that we do not love children enough to grant them liberty; we love them enough to use our wisdom and experience to chart a better, safer path for them. Parental involvement is the most effective tool for influencing children’s lives, because they have a vested interest in success which companies, organizations, governments, and international bodies lack: this is their child.
Cartoon courtesy of http://ifea.net/news.html