It is common to hear people asserting their rights in many different ways. One is a shallow version of rights, such as when someone insists: “I have a right to faster service at this restaurant or a right to get my questions answered by a human being rather than a bot.” At a deeper level, however, certain rights get established by the society as a whole and should apply to everyone: protecting safety and life, free speech, freedom of religious expression, the right to bear arms, the right to property, the right to protection from discrimination of various types, due process, freedom from unjust imprisonment, etc.
It is more common to hear people say, “I have a right to do something” or “I have a right not to be infringed upon by the government” than it is for people to say, “my neighbor or community has a right not to be infringed upon by my actions” or “my right to do X or Y entails certain responsibilities to others.”
A focus on individual freedom can cloud the fact that rights need to have certain limits. Rights would not be controversial if one person’s rights did not impact those of others. The most obvious example may be property rights: for example, “I have a right to do whatever I want with or on my own private property.” Probably nobody would object if you had a big dome over your property that kept out resources that we all must manage together (that is, you use no water, not even from an aquifer that you do not own) and if the dome kept in noise, light, air pollution, sewage, bullets, people, vehicles, etc. All those things affect the neighbors’ private property and our collective well-being.
Many things that one does on private property impact others (and their property). For example, the pollen from GMO crops planted by farmers has blown onto their neighbors’ non-GMO crops, leading to controversy and lawsuits. Property in the Four Corners is vulnerable to invasive species such as cheatgrass and knapweed, so one might ask if private property owners even have the right to “do nothing” with their property and thereby allow invasives to flourish and spread.
Weed control boards would say that they don’t; we establish governmental entities to protect the common good from neglect or damage by private property owners. That’s what rules and laws do. When does one’s right to entertainment infringe on a neighbor’s right to relative peace and quiet? When does a corporation’s right to pursue its business activities threaten the well-being of residents, whether that be about water and air quality, noise, or the crowding out of small local businesses? These are the kinds of situations where the rubber hits the road in terms of discussions of rights.
Rights are not inviolate; instead, they are grounds for negotiating relations among people, their government, and other institutions such as corporations. A person or group can come to “own” a right, which becomes the basis for asserting their position, especially in public contexts like work, communities, legal disputes and governing. For instance, we have anti-discrimination laws to protect the rights of people in housing, employment, and access to public services, so that individuals and groups who may be barred unjustly from certain things can appeal to established and enforced rights.
Most Americans know that the Declaration of Independence, 1776, includes the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The U.S. Constitution of 1789 is both a historical and a dynamic document, in that it has changed over time with its 27 amendments (so far). The Bill of Rights (amendments 1 to 10) to the Constitution has been the touchstone for many discussions of rights in this country, including the controversial application of free speech to corporate bodies, most recently in the Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United in 2010.
Finally, basic human rights became reference points on a global level with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948. Recognized rights have, of course, evolved over the centuries. In 19th century U.S., the debate centered on whether the right to own a human being was more valid than the right of a human being not to be owned. Voting rights have expanded to include citizens of all races and genders, and those over 18 years old (previously 21). The right of people to marry whom they choose is now federal law. A subject of debate among current presidential candidates is whether basic health care is a right.
Next time you start to assert your rights, think more about what they mean. Are you willing to grant them to everyone? Are you willing to accept certain restrictions and responsibilities for your right? If some restrictions apply, are they fair and reasonable or simply a way to place people on unequal footing? Most importantly, how might the exercise of your own rights come into conflict with those of others? After all, other people have rights, too.
George Cheney and Sally Planalp are residents of Moab and part-time professors of communication at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The opinions expressed here are their own and do not represent the university or any other institution. Another version of this editorial was published in the Four Corners Free Press Oct. 3.