The Breakfast Table

Free Speech and Broken Windows

Dear George,

It is early in the a.m., and since I woke up thinking about your letter, it seemed like a good time to reply. I don’t really love the morning, despite the fact that my kids have to be on the school bus (now my 13-year-old takes the city bus) by 7:10. While this may seem unusual to anyone living in the suburbs, I feel both blessed and liberated not being the family chauffeur. City living, as many working women are beginning to understand, provides much more flexibility and precious time than the suburban commuter life. While we will never have enough space for all our books (or even our clothes!) or a backyard with a swing set, our apartment is a happy clutter where no child will be forgotten in the bowels of a finished basement, and Riverside Park has plenty of grass and ball fields. OK. I can hear you saying, “Where is she going with all of this. Wasn’t Sukkoth enough of a digression yesterday?” But it’s all connected, as some famous philosopher once said, or maybe that was my mother.

I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about the quality of urban life for families and not just for the tourists most mayors think are the key to urban regeneration. Not only have I read your Broken Windows article and value it’s important impact on criminal justice policy, but its thesis goes to the heart of how we make urban areas communities again, places where we can work and live. Before we go more deeply into your crime-prevention theories and your work in the New York City subways during the 1980s, I think its important to consider the relationship between free speech and crime control. I have been struck with how political conservatives have used the issue of crime to justify autocratic, if not authoritarian, policies. Street crime is not usually rampant in non-democratic regimes, whether it’s the Communist Soviet Union or authoritarian Taiwan. Public order, however, has been a challenge for democracies. To what extent are we willing to suspend individual rights for the safety of the community? Do we have to tolerate police misconduct? Do we bar political demonstrations from the steps of city hall? Do we take away government contracts from groups such as Housing Works for protesting current New York City AIDS policy? All of these have been policies of Mayor Giuliani. While all these questions do not have an obvious relationship to public safety, for the mayor of New York they are all part of keeping public order. By extension, the mayor has the right to close down an art exhibit if it offends his sense of public decency. Where does free speech end and public order begin? For Mayor Giuliani, its obvious: It all begins and ends with his own personal preferences and there’s no need to worry about the democratic process.

I know it’s still early, but what do you think?

Warmest regards,