Jennifer Schubert-Akin

Jennifer Schubert-Akin, chair and CEO of the Steamboat Institute in Colorado, speaks to the Bipartisan Policy Center in 2018.

There was a time, not that long ago (let’s say three months), when “civil liberties” sounded like a dirty word to most conservatives. The American Civil Liberties Union, for instance, was an enemy of the right’s sensibilities, on scale with Nancy Pelosi and "Happy holidays!"

Civil liberties, however, is just another way of saying freedom, says the conservative-as-Reagan Steamboat Institute in northwest Colorado. The coronavirus is the cause.

Jennifer Schubert-Akin, the institute's chair and CEO, feels like freedoms shouldn't be surrendered without a challenge. Today's emergency is tomorrow's norm; one British guy rigs his sneakers to potentially go off 18 years ago, and we're still going barefoot through airport metal detectors. Stuff has a way of sticking.

“A side effect of this virus is revealing the inner tyrant of some of these elected officials,” she told me in a phone call. “It’s not all of them. I think the majority of our elected officials are really trying to balance public health and safety with the economic and social part of it.

“But on the other side, we’re seeing civil liberties being trampled.”

In this age of Zoom meetings and social distancing, citizens’ voices are being muted, such as when Routt County adopted a face covering ordinance with a $5,000 fine and possible jail time, while the state only considers masks necessary enough for a recommended use, Schubert-Akin pointed out. 

The reins of power need to be snapped by the citizenry, she said.

The conservative outfit is looking for folks to share their stories about how rules are affecting their lives and businesses and where emergency powers have gone too far. (Looking at you, Gov. Executive Order.)

The Steamboat Institute is prodding conservatives to put their experience into words  ideally, 400-word letters to elected officials and 200-word letters to the editor.

The toolbox provides questions to get the rhetorical heart rate:

  • How has the economic crisis affected you and your family? (The other side might pen letters about how coronavirus deaths in their family have affected them.)
  • How has the economic crisis affected your business and business community?
  • How have local ordinances contributed to this economic crisis?
  • How have local ordinances violated personal freedoms?
  • How are you, your family, and your customers taking personal responsibility — absent government coercion — to limit the spread of this virus?
  • How are you planning to revive your home economy, reopen your business, or revitalize the social institutions around you and your family?

You can find the toolbox by clicking here.

Civil liberties is how the left usually puts it. “Personal freedoms,” as the questions note, is the more conservative-friendly term, but they’re the same thing.

The right to own firearms is an example. The right to worship as Americans please, unless it’s a mosque near Ground Zero, is another. 

What rights has the pandemic endangered?

"The First Amendment, the right of people to peaceably assemble, the free exercise of religion," Schubert-Akin said. "The Fifth Amendment, depriving people of life, liberty or property with stay-at-home orders and all these bans on various businesses over who's essential and who's not essential."

We should at least be able to argue over rights  inalienable or otherwise, she said.

Democrats and Republicans have a long history of disagreeing on whose rights are sacred, so it's not surprising the terms civil liberties and personal freedoms appeal to different constituencies.

It’s been 12 years this summer since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which upheld the "individual right" to own a gun over the collective right to ban them.

The ruling “should finally lay to rest the widespread myth that the defining difference between liberal and conservative justices is that the former support ‘individual rights’ and ‘civil liberties,’ while the latter routinely defer to government assertions of authority,” wrote the conservative Cato Institute. “The Heller dissent presents the remarkable spectacle of four liberal Supreme Court justices tying themselves into an intellectual knot to narrow the protections the Bill of Rights provides."

When it comes to loosely sourced election rhetoric (looking at you, Mr. President), liberal justices on the high court have been more willing to clamp down on such speech than conservative ones, wrote David E. Bernstein, a professor at the George Mason University School of Law who authored “You Can’t Say That! The Growing Threat to Civil Liberties from Antidiscrimination Laws” nearly two decades ago.

What he says isn’t popular in some quarters.

“The Court’s conservatives held that forcing the Boy Scouts of America to employ a gay scoutmaster violated the Scouts’ right to promote its belief in traditional sexual morality,” Bernstein wrote. “The liberal dissenters thought the government should be allowed to force the Scouts to present a message inconsistent with the Scouts’ values.”

The coronavirus question is whether the government can mandate common courtesy for the sake of public health. Such a law is kind of like barring people from firing guns in neighborhoods. The trajectory of a bullet and a virus are similar.

My friend Ian Silverii at ProgressNow Colorado argued to me a few months ago that the right to swing my fist ends at the end of his nose, speaking hypothetically.

The danger of COVID-19 goes even further as an assault on my right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, he told me.

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