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The new anti-youth movement.

Dozens of lawmakers and concerned citizens gathered in the White House Rose Garden last July 18, in an atmosphtere of excitement and victory. Led by Candy Lightner, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), and New Jersey Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg, they had come to savor a legislative triumph they insisted would save young people from the ravages of drunk driving.

In a few moments, President Reagan was to sign into law a bill requiring all states to adopt a uniform minimum drinking age of 21 within two years or lose 10 percent of their Federal highway funds. The measure had sailed through Congress, as politicians in both parties, sensitive to election-year pressures, vied to ingratiate themselves with MADD and other elements of the antiliquor lobby. Even the President abandoned his usual devotion to the principle of states' rights and gave this particular example of Federal coercion his blessing, praising the legislation as "a simple measure that will save thousands of young lives."

But the drinking-age bill is a hoax, a cynical attempt to use young adults as scapegoats for a complex national problem. The significance of the law lies not in its potential impact on statistics for drunk driving (which many experts believe will be largely unaffected, given the probability of mass disobedience) but in the willingness of members of Congress to sacrifice the rights of young people. Unfortunately, this episode is merely the latest sortie in a campaign to restrict the rights of adults under 21 years of age and adolescents--a counterrevolution, in effect, which threatens important gains young people made during the late 1960s and the 1970s.

The Administration's recent efforts to hamper the ability of teen-agers to obtain contraceptives illustrates the seriousness of the rollback. Under the guise of upholding parental authority, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a regulation requiring family-planning clinics receiving Federal funds to notify parents of patients under 18 who request birth control pills or other contraceptives. Administration officials persisted in trying to implement this "squeal rule" despite massive evidence that it would increase the already alarming number of teen-age pregnancies. The department withdrew the regulation only after it was struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Urged on by right-wing groups, The President may seek legislation this year overturning the court's ruling.

Hostility toward the legal rights of minors is emerging over other issues as well. In connection with a case pending before the Supreme Court, the Justice Department has filed a brief that advocates giving local school districts wide latitutde to search students for weapons or illicit drugs. A victory for the government in the case would virtually negate the Fourth Amendment's guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures as they pertain to teen-age students. The Supreme Court, too, has exhibited an insensitivity toward juvenile rights in recent years. In 1979 the Court upheld a Massachusetts law requiring "immature" minors seeking abortions to obtain either parental consent or a court order asserting their maturity, and during the 1982-83 term a majority reaffirmed that position with respect to a Missouri statute--the only substantive judicial restrictions on abortion rights the Supreme Court has upheld since issuing its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, in 1973.

Equally alarming is the Court's decision, during its most recent session, allowing state authorities to impose pretrial detention in juvenile criminal cases, a significant departure from the attitude exhibited toward the due process rights of minors in the previous two decades. A series of decisions throughout that period affirmed various constitutional protections for juveniles accused of unlawful behavior, among them: the right to an attorney, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses and the requirement that guilt be proved beyond a reasonable doubt with regard to serious offenses. Although law-enforcement officials defend pretrial detention as necessary to keep dangerous criminals off the streets, evidence presented in a recent PBS documentary, Old Enough To Do Time, casts doubt on that rationale. The filmmakers found that many states use pretrial detention to hold minors accused of petty crimes--"status offenses," such as truancy or sexual promiscuity--which would not be illegal for an adult. Teen-age defendants were imprisoned for an average of three weeks without trial, while adults accused of similar conduct could routinely obtain bail or would not even be charged. Since juvenile detention facilities harbor some truly dangerous offenders and are characterized by the same violence and sexual molestation prevalent in adult prisons, indiscriminate pretrial incarceration may pose a serious threat to safety as well as to individual civil rights.

Other restrictions that disappeared during the 1960s seem to be making a comeback. Communities as diverse as Detroit and Flower Mound, Texas, have recently passed curfew laws or revived long-moribund ones. Even school dress codes, which once seemed extinct, are back in vogue, with consequences as ridiculous as they are lamentable. Consider a recent episode in Azle, Texas, as suburb of Fort Worth, where an eight-grade student was suspended for having a mustache, in violation of the school district's dress code. The boy's parents took the matter before the school board, contending that the illicit facial hair was not a mustache but merely "peach fuzz." Board members agonized for two meetings before deciding that a little pubescent facial hair does not a mustache make. No one stopped to consider whether school authorities have the right to impose such arbitrary standards of personal grooming on their charges.

The array of restraints on teen-age minors and young adults share certain common features. They use stereotypes to characterize the behavior and maturity level of young people. They assume collective responsibility, or collective guilt, restricting all members of the group because a minority of them act in an undesirable manner. Consider the campaign to establish a uniform minimum drinking age. Proponents cite studies showing that 18-to-21-year-olds are involved in 16 percent of alcohol-related automobile fatalities, a percentage substantially higher than that group's portion of the total driving population. Therefore, they contend, people at that age cannot handle alcohol responsibly. "There is nothing magical about being able to drink at 18," asserted Milo Kirk, president of the Dallas chapter of MADD. "The statistics tell the story."

But most drivers in that age bracket, like their elders, never drive when they're drunk. Why, then, must all suffer punishment? Richard Emery, an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union, argued during an appearance on ABC's Nightline, "We shouldn't discriminate against millions of 18-to-21-year-olds when we're dealing with about 1,000 death or so a year [averted by raising the drinking age]." Indeed, there is a more tenable case for prohibiting males of any age from purchasing alcoholic beverages, since they are more likely to become involved in a drunk-driving incident than women between the ages of 18 and 21, whose drunk-driving arrest rates and alcohol-related accident rates fall significantly below the national average.

Like other prejudices, that against the young serves to alleviate the frustration adults suffer in the face of urgent though perplexing problems. Blaming "kids" presents easy solutions to the difficulties that have bedeviled our society: violent crime, the deteriorating quality of public education, alcohol and drug abuse.

The aging of America makes today's youth even more vulnerable to attack. Unfortunately for young people of the 1980s, the baby boom of the postwar years was followed by a baby bust. That, combined with longer life spans, has produced a significantly older population, making the youthful minority more susceptible to discrimination. Compounding the problem is the inexperience of this age group in collective political action. The only serious youth lobby is the National Student Association, but it is anemic and represents only students at major colleges and universities. No one speaks for the millions of high-school students and working youth. And the generation seems reluctant to question the status quo: when today's youth speaks for itself, it does so in a conservative voice. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, 25 percent of today's 18-to-25-year-olds identify with the Republican Party, as opposed to 11 percent in 1968.

The combination of adverse demographics, political disarray and conservatism bodes ill for reversing the ongoing erosion of rights. Indeed, that trend may accelerate unless young people organize more effectively to restrain legislators who ignore or trample on their interests. They operate at a distinct disadvantage: many of them are not old enough to vote, and the group as a whole lacks the economic power and the influential connections of its elders. Coalition-building might help overcome those obstacles, and surely there will be no shortage of potential allies in the next four years.
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Title Annotation:current legislation is taking away the rights of teenagers
Author:Carpenter, Ted Galen
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jan 19, 1985
Previous Article:Minority report.
Next Article:Farm protests hit the statehouses.

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