Tuesday, December 19, 2017

From the Archives: 'The state should punish violence - and nothing else' (1991)

To my surprise, a sentence in this letter to the editor was quoted in a book by Peter McWilliams, Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Society. It took me quite some time to identify and locate the source of the quotation ("There is no right not to be offended by words, actions or symbols."), which appeared on the editorial page of The Washington Times on August 22, 1991. This may be the only time I have discussed masturbation (onanism, self-pleasure) and adult cinemas (a 20th century institution, now largely forgotten) in a mainstream publication.

The state should punish violence - and nothing else
22 August 1991 - The Washington Times

Pee-wee Herman Paul ReubensIn your sympathetic Aug. 13 editorial about Paul Reubens, "The secret sin of Pee-wee Herman," you assert that so-called "victimless" crimes such as prostitution, pornography and drug use depend for their "victimless" status upon a narrow view of what it means to "hurt."

Your argument that the law exists to preserve and protect public order may be largely correct, but it begs the question as to whether public order is protected by laying traps for adults who expose their sexual organs in a darkened movie theater.

In a free society, standards of public morality can be measured only by whether physical coercion - violence against persons or property - occurs. There is no right not to be offended by words, actions or symbols. Otherwise, if a majority or vociferous minority found crucifixes offensive, the state would be closing down Catholic churches as a threat to public morality.

Similarly, if a majority felt the Korean ownership of convenience stores violated neighborhood standards of ethnic purity, the government could be enlisted to deny business licenses to recent immigrants. The only legitimate purpose of government is to protect individuals from coercive violence, not to initiate such coercion itself.

Pee-wee Herman's alleged "crime" took place on private property (the South Trail Cinema) after paying an entry fee for the express purpose of obtaining some measure of sexual gratification by watching erotic films. Under those circumstances, any person on the premises fully understands the nature of the business and what might be encountered there.

Paul Reubens mug shot Florida Pee-wee HermanNeither the owners of the theater nor its patrons are likely to be offended by masturbation in a darkened auditorium. Patrons of an erotic cinema could hardly be offended by the sight of life-size genitalia when larger-than-life examples loomed before them on the screen.

There was no public disorder, no incitement to riot, no complaint from passers-by. Pee-wee Herman was arrested for doing in a private cinema what he certainly would be free to do without fear of reprisal in his (or the theater owner's) private home.

Unless, of course, masturbation is itself illegal in Florida. Come to think of it, that is not so hard to imagine at all. In any case, all such laws are clear violations of personal autonomy, their enforcement is an affront to human dignity and they should be repealed without delay.

Libertarian Party of Virginia

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