Personal Liberty

CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman about to take a spin in Google's self-driving car. (Photo by Marc Scribner)

CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman about to take a spin in Google’s self-driving car. (Photo by Marc Scribner)

For the past several years, I’ve been writing about highly automated vehicles — widely referred to as driverless cars — and the huge potential they have in reducing injuries and deaths (over 30,000 Americans die on the roads every year), improving mobility for the disabled and elderly, reducing the drudgery of commuting, and helping the environment… provided policy makers don’t mess it up with onerous laws and regulations (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Recently, I appeared on Fox Business Network’s libertarian news-talk program The Independents to discuss automated vehicle developments, both technological and political. You can watch it here:

Today, CEI released a white paper I’ve authored, “Self-Driving Regulation: Pro-Market Policies Key to Automated Vehicle Innovation,” that goes into much more detail in arguing for regulatory restraint in order to allow the eventual consumer roll out to occur as timely and as cost-effectively as possible. In it, I provide a brief historical overview of automated vehicle development, explain current developments in the legislative and safety regulatory spaces, and offer a number of recommendations to policy makers.

So, why should you care about automated vehicle regulation? The short answer: bad regulation has the potential to kill. One of the biggest risks is getting the rules wrong and unnecessarily delaying consumer availability and/or increasing the prices faced by consumers. If automated vehicles are indeed safer than current manually driven vehicles, any delay or price increase means consumers will be stuck driving more dangerous vehicles. The stage is set for a classic “Death by Regulation” event: well-meaning lawmakers and bureaucrats deny safer products to consumers out of an overabundance of caution, translating to increased injuries and deaths. That is why it is so important for regulators not to mess it up.

Even if you aren’t sympathetic to free markets and libertarianism, I suspect there the first two-thirds will be of interest. Read the full thing here.

Post image for Pseudoscience and Clickbaiting Results in Beer Fear

There’s a lot of pseudoscience about food out there. From genetically modified crops to organic foods to corn syrup, to preservatives, passionate opinions abound, but well-reasoned, well-researched reporting on the issues is scarce. Normally, I selectively address the more egregious offenses and ignore the rest. But once in a while, an article comes along that is so misinformed, so hyperbolic, and so viral that it cannot be ignored. When such an article maligns one of my favorite food items, beer, I am duty-bound to come to its defense.

Recently, Organics.org turned a post by the blogger Vani Hari, better known as the “Food Babe,” into the worst kind of clickbait with the sky-is-falling headline, “8 Beers That You Should Stop Drinking Immediately,” which has been making the rounds on social media networks. But rather than exposing any dangers in beer, what Hari does reveal is that she does not understand the brewing process, how additives and ingredients function throughout that process, or how the beer industry is regulated.

The first warning sign that the Food Babe’s information may be dubious is that one of her main sources was the book, Chemicals Additives in Beer, published by the Center of Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which has a poor record when it comes to being scientifically sound. As food historian Maureen Ogle noted in her rebuttal (which I highly recommend):

[T]his one fact set off my alarm bells: She [Hari] relied on information from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. If you’ve read Ambitious Brew, you know that I have zero patience with CSPI. For thirty years, that group has railed against the alcohol industry and lobbied for neo-prohibition. As a source of information, it’s untrustworthy, unreliable, and constantly shows a somewhat shocking disregard for science (weird, given the group’s name).

Moreover, I couldn’t find a copy of the book anywhere or even a listing that might demonstrate its existence.

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Post image for Victory for Maryland Parents and Consumers: Energy Drink Ban Voted Down

A bill that would have banned the sale of energy drinks for minors in Maryland was recently voted down in committee almost unanimously. The bill was introduced after the death of 14-year-old Anais Fournier, which was reportedly linked to the consumption of energy drinks, and several news stories linking energy drinks to an increased number of hospitalizations fueled the panic over energy drinks potential hazards. However, Maryland lawmakers, to their credit, did not rush to legislate on a matter that would affect all Marylanders based on a few anecdotal cases.

While it’s understandable that parents would want lawmakers to do something to protect their children from potentially hazardous products, legislating based on anecdotal evidence isn’t the answer. In fact, a ban would likely do more harm than good. As Maryland Del. Doyle Niemann (D-Mount Rainier) told me over email, “There may be issues with energy drinks, but I agree that there are limits to how much can and should be done legislatively.”

On March 15, after hearing the concerns of citizens and business owners in Maryland, the House Economic Matters Committee rejected the bill 22-1. Despite the emotional testimony of the parents of the late Anais Fournier, lawmakers did not seem convinced that a ban was appropriate or that the scientific case against energy drinks is conclusive.

The bill’s penalties were excessive and unreasonable by any standard. The proposal—which defined “energy drinks” as beverages containing 71 milligrams or more of caffeine in a 12-ounce container as well as other ingredients like taurine, guarana, panax ginseng, inositol or L-carnitine—would have made selling energy drinks to minors a crime with the punishment ranging from $500 for the first offense to $2,000 for subsequent offenses, and up to $20,000 for providing discounted or free energy drinks to anyone under the age of 18. Minors themselves could be fined up to $100 if caught in possession of energy drinks.

Despite all the scary headlines, there is no actual evidence that the energy drinks are harmful when moderately consumed. As I noted recently in The Baltimore Sun, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration conducted an investigation in 2012 and found no reason to take further action against the products. While this doesn’t mean they are perfectly safe in any quantity for every consumer in all circumstances, it means that the agency doesn’t see them as a threat to public health. And as noted in a subsequent letter to the Sun, the assertion that energy drinks are dangerous to the 10 percent of the population with undiagnosed heart conditions seems unlikely. Were that the case, we’d expect to see many more energy drink-related deaths given the huge increase in energy drink consumption in recent years.

Energy drinks, consumed in a great enough quantity, could pose potential health risk, but that is true for all consumable goods. The only way to protect children from the dangers of certain foods or beverages is for parents to give them guidelines about proper nutrition to help them make responsible consumption decisions now and in the future.

New Jersey’s anti-bullying law, which applies to the state’s schools and universities, is so overly broad that a fourth-grader was punished just for noting, in response to a question, that a classmate had suffered from head lice. A civil-liberties group called the Rutherford Institute is now representing that student in a First Amendment challenge to the law, notes the Newark Star-Ledger in an article titled, “Civil liberties organization asks federal court to declare NJ’s anti-bullying law unconstitutional.” Another civil-liberties group, FIRE, has also concluded that the law violates the First Amendment.

The Rutherford Institute explains:

Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have asked a federal court to declare a New Jersey anti-bullying law unconstitutional in light of its chilling effect on students’ free speech rights. The Institute’s latest brief, which counters a move by the New Jersey Commissioner of Education to have the lawsuit dismissed, argues that the state’s enforcement of the anti-bullying act represents a violation of students’ rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the New Jersey state constitution. Institute attorneys filed the First Amendment lawsuit in Lim v. Board of Education of the Borough of Tenafly in December 2013 on behalf of a 4th grade boy who was punished under the act for truthfully stating that a fellow student had head lice.

“What school officials conveniently seem to keep forgetting is that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. . . Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that while the purpose of the law is admirable, the law’s scope is unconstitutionally broad and the language is too vague to give parents or students adequate notice about what statements will or will not be prohibited.

Highlighting the potential absurd applications of the law, Institute attorneys draw attention to an incident that took place in September 2011, when a 4th grade boy was punished under the act for correctly stating that a fellow student had head lice. A few days after a note was sent home to the parents of a class of 4th grade students, warning them that one of the students had head lice, several students were sitting at a group table completing an assignment together. During the discussion, one student asked a female student why she had dyed her hair. After she failed to respond to the question, one young boy, L.L., correctly replied that she had done so because she was the student who had head lice. The female student complained to the teacher who in turn instructed L.L. to apologize, and the class lesson continued uninterrupted. The teacher then reported the incident to the school’s “Anti-Bullying Specialist,” who filled out a bullying report and informed the Superintendent about the incident. As a result of the finding, the student was forced to undergo a special sensitivity assignment, and the entire class was reminded about the need to be kind to each other, which further embarrassed the fourth grader. L.L.’s parents appealed the bullying determination first with the local school board, and then with the state Board of Education, both of which affirmed the decision.

Arguing that the statute punishes any speech deemed “hurtful,” even if factually true and non-disruptive, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute filed a First Amendment lawsuit in federal court, asking that the statute be struck down, and that students like L.L. not be penalized in accordance with the statute for exercising their constitutional rights.

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Post image for Food Policy Fight: Junk Study on Vegetarian Diet

Log on to Twitter and you might read: “A vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health, a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life.” Here we have junk science going viral! And its fanning the flames between meat-eating and vegetarian advocates. But it shouldn’t.

You can’t really blame the person pushing out this tweet too much, however, because her source is a study published in a PLOS One research paper. It highlights some of the pitfalls associated with paying too much attention to isolated studies that rely on questionable methodology and overblown claims.

This study is another example of how junk science adversely impacts public policy debates, which is why I recently developed A Consumer’s Guide to Chemical Risk: Deciphering the “Science” Behind Chemical Scares.” As this study on vegetarian diets shows, it’s not just chemical policy that’s negatively impacted by bad science. Personal choice, should rule the day when it comes to dietary choices, but because government is so involved — setting guidelines and telling us what we should and shouldn’t eat — food politics are unavoidable. Accordingly, meat-eaters might use this dumb study to push their agenda, but the facts do not really support them.

This study placed all vegetarians into one category, but there is no such thing as a single vegetarian diet. For example, some vegetarian diets might include mostly processed food and french fries, while others consist of nuts, beans grains, and fresh vegetables. It makes no sense to lump these diets into one category. Yet there are no more details in this study about what the vegetarian participants’ diets included and when the participants began them. Nor does the study include any empirical medical data; just reports from individuals about their perceived health profile.

Apparently, assessing the value of any particular diet was not really the point of this study, despite its conclusions. Rather it addresses the subjects lifestyles’ and perceptions about them, and it found that vegetarians (at least the Austrians in this survey) worry more about their health and report having more health problems than do meat eaters. It does not demonstrate that a vegetarian diet can’t be as healthy as or healthier than a diet that includes meat.

Yet the authors somehow conclude:

Moreover, our results showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life. Therefore, public health programs are needed in order to reduce the health risk due to nutritional factors.

This conclusion offers lots of opportunity for anti-vegetarian soundbites, but the study really doesn’t show what this conclusion says. First the “association” does not prove cause-and-effect; and second it’s not a vegetarian diet that causes these problems. It’s the alleged lifestyles of the vegetarians, such as not getting vaccinated as often and not pursuing preventative health check-ups.

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Former Competitive Enterprise Institute Research Associate Michael Mayfield provided invaluable assistance with this post.

Matt Drudge’s widely discussed tweet that he has already paid Obamacare’s “liberty tax” highlights the uncertainties the self-employed face both from the health care law and the tax code in general. As pointed out by an editorial in Investor’s Business Daily, “self-employed entrepreneurs ranging from Drudge to small-shop proprietors and independent contractors have long been aware of the requirement to estimate their tax liability and send a quarter of it in every three months, and that this amount includes ‘other taxes’ such as the ObamaCare opt-out penalty.”

The threat of the IRS penalty from Obamacare’s individual mandate, perhaps more than the president yukking it up with comedians like Zach Galifianakis, may be driving the apparent pickup in enrollment in advance of the law’s March 31 deadline. “Worries over fines aid health insurance sign-ups,” reads the headline of a March 23 Wall Street Journal article. Even if the penalty this year is relatively small for many Americans, fear of the IRS can be a great motivator.

The good news — for Drudge and other Americans who don’t want to buy an Obamacare-compliant plan due to personal objections or just plain cost — is that in many cases there is a practical escape hatch from the IRS penalty. And this option may end up offering better and more affordable care than Obamacare. The only catch is you’ve got to have a little faith.

Buried in Section 1501 on page 148 of the so-called Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is an exemption from the individual mandate for a “health care sharing ministry,” a group whose members “share a common set of ethical or religious beliefs and share medical expenses among members in accordance with those beliefs.” For any member of such group, the law says, “No penalty shall be imposed.”

It’s somewhat of a mystery how those pushing the law allowed such a potentially large exemption to the individual mandate to be inserted in the first place. This is definitely a case in which the law’s supporters, four years after the law has passed, don’t seem to know what’s in it. But fortunately, many Americans are finding and utilizing this escape hatch.

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Legislators impose all sorts of misguided or costly mandates on colleges and schools that harm young people directly or indirectly. California activists are now seeking to redefine most campus sex as sexual assault, by requiring verbal permission before any sex or sexual activity (never mind that most happily married couples have engaged in consensual sex without any verbal discussion). The first step towards this goal is Senate Bill 967, a pending California bill that would require “affirmative consent” for sexual activity on public and private college campuses (although it does not expressly rule out non-verbal consent), and would require colleges to enforce such rules. I discuss the bill, and related policies at the University of California, at this link.

The bill, SB 967, also contains various provisions that impose unfunded mandates on colleges. It authorizes funding for these mandates for public colleges, but nothing for private colleges burdened by the bill’s requirements. I also discuss in the Sacramento Bee how the bill would undermine due process and privacy on campus.

Occasionally, you hear people oppose school vouchers because they think it will lead to private schools losing their autonomy due to the strings attached. But this objection assumes that the government won’t regulate private schools if they don’t accept government funds. But state governments often will anyway.

In fact, as any educational lobbyist or trade association could tell you, state governments will regulate you whether or not you get a penny in state funds, and even if no voucher program exists. And state legislatures are now passing all sorts of politically correct legislation that encroaches on private colleges’ academic freedom and curricular autonomy, like provisions requiring them to create programs to “promote cultural diversity.”

Post image for CEI Files Comments against IRS Proposed Rules That Would Illegally Restrict 501(C)(4) Speech

Today, CEI filed comments against the IRS’s proposed rules restricting speech by 501(c)(4) groups (which the IRS has suggested could be expanded in the future to also restrict speech by 501(c)(3) groups like think-tanks).  Our comments focus on the Treasury Department’s improper attempt to redefine non-partisan criticism of non-elected government officials, including communications with lawmakers about executive-branch and judicial nominations, as “candidate-related political activity,” in order to restrict such activity by 501(c)(4) groups. We also discuss how the proposed rule would also unconstitutionally restrict non-profits’ advice to the executive branch about nominations. CEI also agrees with the Heritage Foundation that the Treasury Department lacks statutory authority to impose the proposed rules.

As I earlier noted in The Wall Street Journal,

Those rules restrict even truthful, nonpartisan criticism of IRS and bureaucratic wrongdoing by classifying it as “candidate-related political activity.” For example, if an IRS official subjects citizens to incredibly burdensome demands for irrelevant information just to harass them for their political or religious beliefs, no 501(c)(4) group could later criticize that official’s nomination to be IRS commissioner, without engaging in restricted activity. That’s because the IRS’s proposed regulation defines even unelected government officials, like agency heads and judges, as “candidates” if they have been nominated for a position requiring Senate confirmation. The IRS’s proposed rules are an attack on the First Amendment that will make it easier for the government to get away with harassing political dissenters and whistleblowers in the future.

The proposed rules are even more dangerous than they appear, since the IRS notice containing the proposed rules expressly raised the possibility that these speech restrictions will later be expanded, in two disturbing ways, as we described earlier. First, the IRS suggests that this broad definition of the restricted category of speech (“candidate-related political activity”) in its proposed rule may later be applied to 501(c)(3) groups (which are not permitted to engage in candidate-related political activity at all, unlike 501(c)(4)’s, which can currently engage in it as a minority of their overall activity). That would effectively gag 501(c)(3) groups from discussing a wide range of judicial and executive nominations or speaking out about wrongdoing by nominees for such posts. Second, the IRS suggests that it may curb 501(c)(4)s’ ability to engage in such expressive “activity” even a minority of the time, by not just broadly defining such activity as inimical to social welfare, but also requiring them to “exclusively” promote this narrow IRS definition of “social welfare.”

We earlier discussed how the IRS violated the First Amendment by targeting Tea Party and other groups for costly and burdensome investigations, and demanding lots of burdensome and irrelevant information from those groups that had nothing to do with whether they actually were eligible for 501(c)(4) status. As we explained, such investigative harassment would have violated federal appeals court rulings like White v. Lee, 227 F.3d 1214 (9th Cir. 2000), even if it had not been aimed at conservative groups, but rather at both conservative and liberal groups alike. (Note that donations to 501(c)(4) groups are not tax-deductible, unlike donations to 501(c)(3) groups).

CEI’s comments can be found here.

Yesterday, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have made clear that the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) applied not just as a defense to a lawsuit brought by a government entity, but also as a defense to lawsuits brought by a private party under a state statute, or using a cause of action created by state law. Under RFRA, no government action (including a damage award in a lawsuit) can “substantially burden” religious freedom unless it is “the least restrictive means” to further a “compelling interest.” The bill hardly seems like a radical change, since damage awards in private lawsuits already constitute “state action” for purposes of the First Amendment, under the Supreme Court’s decisions in Snyder v. Phelps and New York Times v. Sullivan. The bill just applies the same principle to RFRA, and, indeed, the bill’s enactment might merely have given the state’s RFRA the same meaning that other jurisdictions’ RFRA’s already have by judicial construction. The bill did not even mention sexual orientation, did not single out gays, and probably would have had its greatest effect in other areas.

The media, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, have fundamentally distorted what that bill, SB 1062, vetoed by Gov. Brewer, would have done, by claiming that it would have “allowed” a broad range of discrimination. It was written narrowly enough (and did not even mention gays) that it conceivably might not have legalized any additional discrimination against gays at all. It might have had more effect as to refusals to serve other groups disapproved of by religious fundamentalists, like cohabiting unmarried couples, although even that is not guaranteed. (Disclosure: I support both gay marriage and religious liberty, and CEI did not take any position on the bill.)

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“The Wandering Dago food truck wants to park and sell food at various events on New York State property. The state says no, because the name is offensive. Does that violate the First Amendment?” The answer is probably yes, says UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh at this link. He recently discussed the free-speech issue in a pending court case called Wandering Dago Inc. v. N.Y. State Office of General Services. The mere fact that a business’s name is politically incorrect, or offends some patrons, is not reason enough to ban it, as an appeals court ruled in holding the name “Sambo’s” protected in Sambo’s Restaurants Inc. v. City of Ann Arbor (1981). Of course, if it is offensive, the business may lose customers as a result, especially if its name does not appeal to patrons’ sense of humor.

Commercial speech is not the only speech that government officials seek to restrict when it offends certain listeners. Such restrictions are common in universities, even though the Supreme Court has indicated that free speech is nearly as broad on campus as in society at large (in its decisions in Papish v. University of Missouri Curators, Healy v. James, and Rosenberger v. University of Virginia).

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