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Reason Foundation

Government Attacks on Freedom

How petty regulations and "zero tolerance" policies destroy liberty

John Stossel
July 15, 2010

Something's happened to America, and it isn't good. It's become easier to get into trouble. We've become a nation of a million rules. Not the kind of bottom-up rules that people generate through voluntary associations. Those are fine. I mean imposed, top-down rules formed in the brains of meddling bureaucrats who think they know better than we how to manage our lives.

Cross them, and we are in trouble.

The National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) received an anonymous fax that a seafood shipment to Alabama from David McNab contained "undersized lobster tails" and was improperly packed in clear plastic bags, rather than the cardboard boxes allegedly required under Honduran law. When the $4 million shipment arrived, NMFS agents seized it. McNab served eight years in prison, even though the Honduran government informed the court that the regulation requiring cardboard boxes had been repealed.

How about this one? Four kindergartners—yes, 5-year-old boys—played cops and robbers at Wilson Elementary in New Jersey. One yelled: "Boom! I have a bazooka, and I want to shoot you." He did not, of course, have a bazooka. Nevertheless, all four boys were suspended from school for three days for "making threats," a violation of their school district's zero-tolerance policy. School Principal Georgia Baumann said, "We cannot take any of these statements in a light manner." District Superintendent William Bauer said: "This is a no-tolerance policy. We're very firm on weapons and threats."

Give me a break.

Here's another: Ansche Hedgepeth, 12, committed this heinous crime: She left school in Washington, D.C., entered a Metrorail station to head home and ate a French fry. An undercover officer arrested her, confiscating her jacket, backpack, and shoelaces. She was handcuffed and taken to the Juvenile Processing Center. Only after three hours in custody was the 12-year-old released into her mother's custody. The chief of Metro Transit Police said: "We really do believe in zero-tolerance. Anyone taken into custody has to be handcuffed for officer safety." She was sentenced to community service and now carries an arrest record. Washington's Metro has since rescinded its zero-tolerance policy.

Keith John Sampson, a student-employee at Indiana-Purdue University Indianapolis, had the temerity to read Notre Dame Versus the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan during breaks on the job. One student complained because the book's cover depicted the Klan. The university then found Sampson guilty of racial harassment! Thankfully, a great organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), came to his defense and got his school record cleared.

Palo Alto, Calif., ordered Kay Leibrand, a grandmother, to lower her carefully trimmed hedges. Leibrand argued that no one's vision was obstructed and asked the code officer to take a look. He refused. Then the city dispatched two police officers. They arrested her, loaded her into a patrol car in front of her neighbors, and hauled her down to the station.

In 2001, honor student Lindsay Brown parked her car in the wrong spot at her high school. A county police officer looked inside and saw a kitchen knife—a butter knife with a rounded tip. Because Lindsay was on school property, she had violated the zero-tolerance policy for knives. She was arrested, handcuffed, and hauled off to county jail where she spent nine hours on a felony weapons possession charge. School Principal Fred Bode told a local paper, "A weapon is a weapon."

Congress creates, on average, one new crime every week. Federal agencies create thousands more—so many, in fact that the Congressional Research Service itself said that merely counting them would be impossible.

This is a bad trend. As Lao Tsu said, "The more laws and order are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers there will be."

John Stossel is host of Stossel on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of Give Me a Break and of Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at johnstossel.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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