Smoking Ban: Bias clouds the issue

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The Colorado Freedom

Smoking Ban: Bias clouds the issue

by Ari Armstrong

This article originally appeared in the March 31, 2007, Rocky Mountain News as a Speakout titled, "Bias clouds the issue."

I seem to have a bad habit of picking losing battles. I fought against Referendum C and the minimum-wage hike, both of which passed. I supported the measure to legalize small amounts of marijuana for adults age 21 and over; it failed. The election cycle before last, every single candidate I voted for lost. I opposed last year's successful legislative attempt to violate property rights -- er, I mean, to ban smoking to save the children from cancer.

But I refuse to give up on my causes, and that includes my call for journalists to stop using biased language to favor legislation that, in my view, violates individual rights. On March 21, the Rocky published the following news lead: "Bar owners can still use cigarette sales to get around a statewide smoking ban after a measure designed to fix that loophole died in committee Tuesday." (The headline was: "Cigarette sales can be used to dodge ban.")

What's wrong with that? For one thing, the term fix implies that something is broken. The term implies that the bill is a good thing, when in my view it's terrible.

The point here is not who's right about the bill. The point is that the Rocky's news stories have no business actively promoting specific legislation. Journalists who wish to advocate policy changes should write for the editorial pages or the opinion columns overseen by the news side.

The term loophole carries a negative connotation. Everyone understands that a legal loophole is bad and should be closed. It seems that loophole is among the loopholes through which journalists often pass to avoid objective reporting. Using a paraphrased quote, the writer later attributes loophole to a supporter of the bill.

Here's how I might rewrite the lead to cast the recent legislation in a bad light: "Bar owners can continue to use cigarette sales to mitigate a statewide smoking ban after a measure designed to worsen the imposition died in committee Tuesday."

The news editors would reject such a lead for the same reasons they should have rejected the text that was used.

That said, the Rocky has done a decent job reporting various ramifications of the smoking ban. The paper has provided information about the elusive definition of tobacco "bars," the casino exemption and the impact of the ban on theaters that run plays featuring cigarettes.

I do wish the Rocky and other papers had made a greater attempt to discuss the heart of the argument against the ban. People have the right to control their own property and associate freely. The owners of private establishments have every right to set smoking policy there, and patrons and employees are free to come or leave as they wish. The smoking ban is an assault on private property rights, and property rights are a centerpiece of a free society. Reporters didn't try hard enough to find sources who share this perspective.

My side has enough trouble fighting (what I regard as) bad legislation without struggling against biased journalism on top of it. As this is the editorial page, I'll close with an evaluation I've used before, during the unsuccessful attempt to defeat the measure that expanded gun registration-checks to private sales at gunshows: Freedom is not a loophole.

Ari Armstrong, a resident of Westminster, edits the Colorado Freedom Report (

April 12 Update: The Rocky's web page included some interesting comments from readers.

"Docjay" replies, "You have no 'right' to force me to either vacate a public facility or have my lungs filled with carcinogens." The crucial point is that "Docjay" regards private property used for business purposes as a "public facility." Implicit in "Docjay's" presumption is outright socialism -- the idea that the "public" (i.e., the state) really owns every business.

"Docjay" completely mangles the meaning of the term "force." No one is trying to "force" "Docjay" to leave a bar or other establishment or to have his "lungs filled with carcinogens." Business owners do have a right to refuse to offer service to "Docjay," but they do not have a right to force smoke into his lungs. But allowing smoking in a private business does not initiate force against anyone. If "Docjay" doesn't like the smoke, he can choose not to be there. No one is forcing him to enter or stay. "Docjay" does not have the right to force businesses to offer him service on terms disagreeable to the owner.

Does "Docjay" have the right to force others to vacate his own property? Yes, he does. Similarly, business owners have the right to set a "no smoking" policy and force those who insist on smoking to vacate their property. No one has the right to smoke in "Docjay's" home without permission. Yet "Docjay" retains the right to invite others into his home and allow them to smoke, at his discretion. That is the right that "Docjay" wishes to deny the owners of private businesses. "Dio" sensibly asks "Docjay" whether he has "a 'right' to force people out of bars because you don't like the smell of cigarette smoke."

Mark Call makes a broader point: licensing already grants significant control of private property to the state. Call writes, "Those who ask permission from Big Brother to operate 'their' business are ignorant of the reality -- if you ask permission at ALL, it's not 'your' business, it's HIS. He makes the rules, sets the conditions, tells you when you can open, when you can't, charges tribute, and even tells you who you have to admit, and who not to. Who are you to question your master? Grow some cojones, bar owners and other slaves. YOU WILL NEVER HAVE 'RIGHTS' so long as you HAVE TO HAVE A LICENSE to 'exercise' them! No one needs a license to do anything in a free society, where 'private enterprise' is truly private." However, the fact that state licensing improperly restricts private property doesn't imply that additional restrictions should be approved. A freer society is better, even if it's not completely free.

The Colorado Freedom