You have a right to be wrong

True story.  A few years back one of my students had confused some minor matter about a text of Plato.  When I pointed that out, another student commented: "He has a right to be wrong."  That odd justification comes out in a George Will op-ed where he, unlike his usual, argues for new rights not enumerated in the constitution.  Now of course he probably thinks he can get there with a series of individually valid inferences.  Fine, but you have to understand that any other time one maintains a right not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, Will will shout "judicial activism" or some other synonym.  Don't get me wrong, I believe in the concept of inferential rights, I just think it's funny that Will doesn't, until he does.

This is not to say, however, that Will does not have a point.  He may, but I think, as is perhaps no surprise, that his argument for it sucks.  He maintains as a kind of premise one that liberals want to coerce others to believe like they do–this is their MO, which is a word the very pretentious Will would likely spell out: Modus operandi.  It's a little ironic, since the specific topic in question concerns the desire of some (not the liberals) to limit the rights of others to engage in private, self-regarding behavior.  Some people, not happy with the structure of our democracy (where fundamental rights get interpreted out of the Constitution sometimes), gather signatures to put such matters on the ballot.  This raises an important question: are signatures on referendums like voting and therefore private? 

I think it's fair to say that such a question admits of no easy answer.  But just because it doesn't admit of an easy answer, does not mean any answer, such as the following one offered by Will, will suffice:

The Supreme Court has held that disclosure requirements serve three government interests: They provide information about the flow of political money, they deter corruption and avoid the appearance thereof by revealing large contributions, and they facilitate enforcement of contribution limits. These pertain only to financial information in candidate elections. These cannot justify compelled disclosures regarding referendums because referendums raise no issues of officials' future performance in office — being corruptly responsive to financial contributors. The only relevant information about referendums is in the text of the propositions.

In 1973, Washington's secretary of state ruled that signing an initiative or referendum petition is "a form of voting" and that violating voters' privacy could have adverse "political ramifications" for those signing. In 2009, some advocates of disclosure plan to put signers' names on the Internet in order to force "uncomfortable" conversations.

In the interest of fairness, something I'm always interested in by the way, the above two paragraphs make some attempt at arguing for the position that referendum signatures ought to be private.  I think their attempt fails: The first is irrelevant to the particular issue and the second cites the irrelevant precedent of the secretary of state.  A referendum petition by any standard is not a vote: you sign your name and put your address on it for the purposes of public inspection of its authenticity.  You do not sign your vote. 

In any case, the following arguments for the above proposition really blow:

Larry Stickney, a social conservative and president of the Washington Values Alliance, says that disclosure of the identities of petitioners will enable "ideological background checks" that will have a chilling effect on political participation. He frequently encounters people who flinch from involvement with the referendum when they learn that disclosure of their involvement is possible. He has received abusive e-mails and late-night telephone calls and has seen a stranger on his front lawn taking pictures of his house.

The Wall Street Journal's John Fund reports that some Californians who gave financial support to last year's successful campaign for Proposition 8 — it declared marriage to be only between a man and a woman — subsequently suffered significant harm. For example, the director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, who contributed $1,500, was forced to resign. So was the manager of a fashionable Los Angeles restaurant who contributed just $100.

The first paragraph offers evidence that vociferous advocates may suffer the paranoia that comes along with taking an unpopular position on a matter of public interest.  It does not establish that a private citizen whose only action was signing a petition may suffer these things.  The second paragraph shows that people who have given financial support, something about which disclosure has been determined to be legitimate (and admitted to by Will himself only a three paragraphs before) have suffered harm.  I don't think one can be fired for one's political affiliations–there are laws against that I believe.

Charles Bouley, a gay columnist, has honorably protested such bullying. He says that people "have the right to be wrong," and reminds gay activists: "Even Barack Obama said marriage was between a man and a woman at a time when we needed his voice on our side on equality. He let us down, too, remember, and many of you still gave him a job."

Indeed, people do have a right to be wrong, and others have a duty to point that out.