Like doctors, government should abide by the phrase primum non nocere, which means, "First, do no harm." Our governments must not actively harm us or inhibit our rights. In fact, there are certain freedoms and rights of the people that are so essential to the public good government should actively encourage them.
But there have been recent actions by our state and county governments that, at best, discourage our neighbors from exercising long-held American freedoms and, at worst, violate constitutional rights or established principles.
Before I review the substance of these actions, it is important to note that we do not need to disparage the motives of the legislators mentioned. We need to be able to disagree without attacking the other side. This fosters a more civil debate, and it better enables each side to work together on potential compromises.
President Kennedy aptly said, "Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future." Too often in political dialogue, especially on the national level, we criticize people with opposing views as dishonest, unethical, deceitful scoundrels. And then we wonder why nothing seems to get accomplished in Washington, D.C.
Our state legislature passed a law requiring all voters to present a picture identification card issued by the state or federal government prior to being allowed to vote. Examples of acceptable forms of ID are state-issued driver's licenses, a U.S. passport, or U.S. military ID.
For those people without any ID that fits the requirements, the Department of Safety and Homeland Security will provide them with a photo ID at no charge at 48 driver service centers across the state. There are five centers in Shelby County, but only two are in Memphis west of Ridgeway Road.
The purpose of this new law, as stated, was to combat "voter fraud." While it is laudable to combat voter fraud, the state law does not possess the means to do that; instead, it discourages people from exercising their right to vote. There are many poor and elderly in our city who do not have great access to transportation to get to one of the two state facilities in the inner city. And, as President Johnson observed, "A man without a vote is a man without protection."
If both parties want to ensure integrity at the polls and to encourage voter participation, the law should be amended. Cities and counties, abiding by traditional state voter requirements, could use their many facilities to provide certified voter IDs, making the acquisition of such IDs more convenient for the public. There are 17 library branches and nine police precincts in Memphis. If we want to safeguard the right and the sanctity of the vote, we should avail ourselves of these obvious, trusted outlets.
The Shelby County Commission has also used its power in a way that, in my opinion, will discourage people from exercising their rights. The commission has authorized its attorney to subpoena records from The Commercial Appeal that would identify those persons who have posted anonymous comments about certain articles since the school merger issue has arisen.
The United States Constitution protects the freedom of expression from government interference. Government should not act to discourage free speech, because it would have a chilling effect on all our rights to freedom of speech.
The fact that the county commission and its lawyers could identify persons who have criticized the commissioners or their positions would discourage people in the future from expressing their opinions.
While I certainly do not think all of the persons who regularly post comments on the web sites of media outlets are well-informed citizens who possess reasonable opinions, I do believe that they have the right to share those opinions with others without interference from government.
"America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedom, it will be because we destroyed ourselves": These words from President Lincoln still ring true today.
Our government should encourage citizens to exercise our cherished rights and privileges. The people who represent us on the state and county legislative bodies are good people, but they should amend their actions and work for higher voter turnout and more vigorous public debates.
Attorney Jim Strickland is a two-term city council member and this year's budget chairman.