Freedom of speech regained

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Recently I finished up 27 years as a judge at the 8th Circuit Court in Jaffrey. When you observe anything for that long, you can’t help but reach opinions about what you’ve seen. During all that time, however, I was unable to voice any of those opinions because of the restrictions imposed by the Code of Judicial Conduct. While I already miss the wonderful people who work so hard on the court’s behalf, I’m happy to have my freedom of speech restored, and I have a few things to say.

Firearms and restrictions on them have been emotional issues for a long time, but primarily since the National Rifle Association radicalized its position during the 1970’s and adopted the stance of opposing virtually all regulations and restrictions, however reasonable. One of the loudest arguments advanced for unfettered gun ownership is that people need firearms for self-defense against criminals who have guns. Nevertheless, during 27 years on the bench, I never – even once – heard a case where a firearm was used for that purpose. Rather, firearms were frequently used – nearly always by men – to threaten, intimidate or injure their family members or partners. If America doesn’t want even reasonable gun control, that’s a choice it can make, but it needs to base that decision on the facts, not unsubstantiated propaganda.

The recent change in the law to take away the ability of local police to deny concealed carry permits to their residents whom they don’t think are suitable for that privilege will only make matters worse. Local officers know who is a reckless hothead, a domestic abuser or bully, or too mentally or emotionally unstable for such a permit. When a permit was denied, the resident had the right to appeal that determination to the local court. In 27 years I heard perhaps four such appeals, and I can recall overturning a permit denial only once. The permit law was protecting everyone’s rights in a reasonable manner and should not have been changed.

Thankfully, capital punishment is not an issue I had to deal with during my judicial career. Still, the idea that in the 21st century our nation would continue to endorse the “eye for an eye” retribution of the Old Testament is appalling. And the problem with it is not that we may be executing innocent people. Despite widespread concern about that risk, we’re doing much better at avoiding questionable executions with the help of DNA testing and multi-level review of the evidence and trial process. It’s also not that the death penalty fails to provide an effective deterrent to serious crimes – though it doesn’t, because people who commit crimes don’t consider the consequences before acting. It’s not even that botched executions are cruel and unusual punishment, or that opposing this sanction is being soft on crime or coddling our worst criminals at the expense of their victims. No, the problem with the death penalty is that it’s just plain wrong for a civilized society to kill people. That’s why all our close friends in the community of nations have abolished the practice or no longer impose it, and why only places like China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen and Syria continue to use it. Using it diminishes us as a moral country. People who commit our most heinous crimes should be removed from society for the rest of their lives, but they shouldn’t be killed.

Over and over I’ve seen the critical importance of a basic safety net for our most vulnerable and defenseless citizens. Suffice it to say that there are just some of us who can’t make our way in the world without help from the rest of us. Sometimes the fault clearly lies with the people themselves, and there are certainly abuses that should be eliminated. Still, those aren’t valid excuses for abandoning our neighbors in real need. Until the Affordable Care Act, the culprit was often uninsured medical expenses that could bury a family for years after one serious illness. Now it’s primarily that the out-dated minimum wage just isn’t nearly enough to live on. Yet the only ones we seem to worry about are the “job creators,” most of whom are doing just fine and would likely be better off if their employees weren’t pre-occupied and overwhelmed with financial problems.

What we’ve never realized in this state and most of the country is that providing a meaningful safety net is much less expensive in the long run than telling those in need to fend for themselves and then having to mop up when that approach doesn’t work. If New Hampshire increased its minimum wage to lift full-time wages above the poverty level, its young people might not feel they had to leave to support themselves, and new businesses might be attracted by a more abundant workforce. If you analyze the most successful businesses in this country today, they’re the ones who pay their employees the most generously – and get the most from them in return.

Freedom of speech is just one of the things that makes this a great country, and no one appreciates that more than someone who hasn’t had it for a long time.

L. Phillips Runyon III lives in Peterborough.