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Individual Rights vs The Common Good

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Steven Budzinski

on 9 September 2013

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Transcript of Individual Rights vs The Common Good

The "common good" is not as easy to define. However the general idea with it is that in certain situations, the rights of individuals must step down in favor of the collective will of a group or community.
Balancing Individual Rights and the Common Good
Individual Rights
The Common Good
What Does this Theme Mean?
Simply put, this theme is defined as the struggle of the rights of the individual and the "common good", and how to balance them. This theme has been a topic of much debate and conflict throughout United States history, all the way back to its founding. But what do we mean when we say "individual rights" and "the common good"?
Individual rights are rights that are granted and guaranteed by the government to the citizens of the United States of America.
Where are they guaranteed?
In the Declaration of Independence
and in the Bill of Rights
The Declaration of Independence states that all people have certain unalienable rights, and that it is the government's duty to protect these rights.
The Bill of Rights lists our individual rights as citizens, some of the most basic of these freedoms are of press, religion, and speech.
Individual rights were, from the very founding of this country, a key concern for the revolutionary leaders at the time. These men wanted to set a standard for how the government and society should treat individuals. They also put huge emphasis on individual rights to make sure the people were able to face against their government should the country’s founding ideals be forgotten. freedom from unwarranted search and seizure, and the right to bear arms are examples of these individual rights.
What does the constitution have to say about the common good?
The U.S. Constitution
The Preamble to the Constitution states what the government's fundamental purposes are.
"...promote the general Welfare" means to support the common good.
As we can see, the constitution states that it is the government's duty to uphold the common good.
But didn't it (the Constitution), and the Declaration of Independence also declare that individual rights were above all, and that it was the government's duty to protect them at all costs? As we shall see, this ambiguity, this "double message" will help fuel countless debates, legal cases, and more throughout US History.
This theme is the struggle to find balance between the fundamental rights of the individual granted to us, and the will of society who will challenge and oppose some of these rights in the belief that it would be for the “common good” to do so. It has evolved over the decades and centuries, from property rights near the Civil War, to Civil Rights afterwords, to marital and privacy rights, and many more in between. It is an area of conflict with many belligerents, from an individual person against general society, from individuals and the court systems, from individuals to societal workers, and more. All of this and more will be explored in the cases to come.
Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896)
Plessy vs. Ferguson was a significant court case in 1896. In 1890, the state of Louisiana passed the Seperate Car Act, whereby people of color were by law, forced to use the "colored railway cars" and were not allowed by the Act to take seat in the "white railway cars". Soon after the passing of this Act, a group of prominent"creoles" (simply, people of black descent that lived well off lives) along with some white people of New Orleans formed the "Comite des Citoyens". One member, Homer Plessy, an "octoroon" (a person of supposedly 7/8th's white descent and 1/8th's black descent) was convinced by his fellow members to buy a first class ticket and seat in the white railway car. Despite his "octoroon status", he was considered black by Louisiana law and was apprehended (which was the his and the group's plan all along). This video explains context and the court case:
Passengers at nearly all railroad stations in states such as Louisiana and Maryland would've see signs like this, directed passengers on where they need to go to be seated, depending on their color.
It was in this court case that Jim Crow Law, and the idea of "separate but equal", was fully realized. From then on until the Civil Rights movements of the 50's and 60's, Jim Crow Law would be enforced.
Snyder vs. Phelps (2011)
America and Vietnam (1965-73)
Griswold vs. Connecticut (1965)
Plessy vs. Ferguson was a landmark case in American history. As the video stated, when prevented from siting in the whites-only train car, Homer Plessy claimed that his 14th Amendment rights of equal protection and the privileges and immunities of an American citizen, had been violated. These rights are individual rights. He and the black community of Louisiana were trying to defend individual rights that they claimed, had been violated. Their opponents, the Louisiana state court (which was represented by Justice Ferguson), refuted their claim. They claimed that Plessy's individual rights hadn't been violated, as the colored-cars were equal to the white-only cars, but separate. However, this was far from true. In truth, anti-colored sentiments were very high In the state of Louisiana (and in other southern/former slave states as well) it was believed to be the "common good" to segregate and discriminate people of color, making this court case one of individual rights vs the common good. Ultimately, Plessy's claims were denied and steps to obtain race equality were not made. in fact, quite the opposite happened, it is in this court case that the term "separate, but equal" was first coined and soon became a common rebuttal to similar cases. Additionally, it was after this case that Jim Crow Law, and the actions of organizations such as the KKK, were legitimized.
Vietnam War, Background Info:
The Vietnam War had been raging for years before American involvement. The French, desperate to keep their colonial territories after the devastation of World War 2, fought revolutionaries led by Ho Chi Minh. In 1954, the French surrendered and agreed to grant Vietnam it's independence. However, not too long after the French left, the USSR became involved as they attempted to install communism into the country. Ho Chi Minh and his supporters all accepted communism and USSR support. The United States didn't. The country was divided into two, the north in support of communism and the south for democracy. In 1965, the United States declared war on North Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. The United States federal government made the decision to institute a military draft. This action is the central area of discussion in this part of the presentation.
As we can see from the videos, the American draft during the Vietnam War was an area of much controversy. The Federal Government felt the need to utilize the draft system as a way to bolster US forces in Vietnam. The government felt that it was highly necessary to be involved in Vietnam in order to combat communism. However, this justification for war was highly opposed by much of the American population. Many Americans did not agree with the reasons for why America was involved. Many of these people claimed that there 13th Amendment Rights were being violated due to the draft. This argument was made stronger by the apparent fact that the United States hadn't formally declared war on North Vietnam. Citizens felt as if they were forced into involuntary servitude, risking their lives in a "war" that hadn't even been declared. This along with the many failures of the United States armed forces in Vietnam helped keep resentment high. How does this tie into the theme? Well, many members of the Federal Government felt that it was the duty of all citizens to provide armed services for the country. This was for the "common good" of the entire nation, and the entire democratic/free world. Many citizens felt that the draft violated their 13th Amendment Rights, individual rights that protected people from involuntary servitude. That is how the theme applies here.
Snyder vs. Phelps was a controversial court case that between the Westboro Baptist Church led by Fred Phelps, and Albert Snyder, the father of Matthew Snyder. Matthew Snyder was a marine who was killed in the War in Iraq. A public funeral was arranged by the Snyder family, and in response, the members of Westboro Baptist Church drove to the funeral site, and picketed the area with signs and clothing covered in all sorts of hateful messages. They sang songs and desecrated American flags, yelling out lines such as "thank God for dead soldiers". All of this could be heard and seen by the funeral-goers. However, the members of the church stationed themselves on what was technically public property, in a manner that did not disrupt the funeral process physically, along with avoiding other things as well. The church was very careful with avoiding any legal troubles. Despite their efforts, the Snyder family felt threatened by the church's actions and took matters into court.
Ultimately, the case ended with the Phelps family and their church victorious. The Snyder family claimed that the church members threatened them and made personal attacks against them. The Phelps family in response stated that they were not making personal attacks or threats to the family, and that they were simply exercising their 1st Amendment Rights. They stated that they should not be prevented from exercising their Constitutional Rights just because it caused emotional distress. In addition, the defendants side claimed that what the Phelps family was doing/saying/picketing about was about public issues, not attacks directed at the Snyder family in general. Also, the Phelps family had been picketing soldier funerals for many years prior.The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of Phelps, an overwhelming majority. The court held that speech held on public property, about a public issue, "cannot be liable for a tort of emotional distress, even if the speech is found to be 'outrageous'". In this court case, the Phelps family fought for their individual rights against the Snyder family and indeed the people present at the funeral and most of the country who despise their church, who believed that it would be for the "common good" to have them stop their controversial ways.
Griswold vs. Connecticut was a landmark case in the fight to legalize contraceptives. At the time, like the video stated, contraceptives were outlawed in Connecticut, those who used them and those who administered them or taught people how to use them were subject to prosecution and fines. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Griswold, stating that the Constitution protected privacy rights, which includes marital rights. While the "rights of privacy" were not explicitly stated in the Constitution, the Supreme Court Justices agreed that the rights were to be found in the "penumbras" and "emanations" of other constitutional protections. The 1st, 4th, and 14th Amendments specifically. As a result, Griswold and those in support of his side, were fighting for individual rights. The state of Connecticut represented the "common good" in that the state government officials were all elected by Connecticut residents, they therefore represent the "common good" of the state.
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