Liberty for the youth
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2000
The most telling public testimony on the St. Petersburg juvenile curfew proposal last week came from pro-curfew resident Paul Dickens, who equated a curfew for minors with the pet leash law. "People should keep dogs on a leash. Why? Because they bite people," he said.
Mary Ernst, a teenager herself, had to remind Dickens that she is not a dog, nor a criminal, and she did not have to be kept on a leash.
This distinction was at the core of the debate that attracted more than 50 members of the public, including many young people. Did the St. Petersburg City Council believe that because a tiny segment of our community's young people are delinquents, the law-abiding majority could be locked up every night without regard to their individual conduct? Would the misconduct of a few mean the rest could have their liberty constrained in public, like dogs? Or did young people have a right to be treated as individuals and citizens?
The lopsided 6-to-2 council vote suggested that only Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster -- lawyers who should know better -- thought the teenagers-as-dogs analogy apt. Even council member Jay Lasita, who proposed the idea, voted against it, although he suggested the move was strategic so he could bring the matter up again at the next meeting.
The council did the right thing by solidly rejecting the curfew. Concerns over it ranged from constitutional rights to the way it could be disproportionately used against minority youth to the use of police officers as surrogate babysitters.
But the vote, no doubt, resounded loudest for those young people who came to participate in our local democracy and learned that standing up for an important cause can make a difference. It was a living civics lesson for teenagers such as Lili Ringold-Brown, who testified against the curfew by quoting Martin Luther King Jr.'s celebrated letter from the Birmingham jail in which he defined unjust laws as those that one group imposes on another but not on itself. The council's responsiveness probably did more to wipe away youth apathy and cynicism than a year's worth of political science classes.
If Lasita does intend to bring this divisive curfew proposal back to the council at the next meeting, he will be teaching Mary Ernst and Lili Ringold-Brown another lesson about government: that no victory for liberty is ever permanent.
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