Guest Column: 21-ordinance is a human-rights violation


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Imagine that we’re debating a law that reads:

“No person, individual, association, corporation, partnership, or club holding a liquor-control license, wine, or beer permit, which authorizes on-the-premises consumption, nor his or her agents or employees shall allow a person who is 50 years or older to enter or remain in the licensed or permitted establishment between the hours of 10 p.m. and closing.”

Of course, restricting the legal right of older citizens to freely associate is ludicrous, outrageous, and completely unacceptable. As fair-minded Iowans, we wouldn’t stand for such a law, however benevolent the reasons advanced by the law’s proponents and regardless of how many community leaders endorsed it.

Replace the words “is 50 years or older” with “who has not yet attained the legal age,” and you have the 21 bar-entry ordinance.

But is discriminating against a younger demographic of Iowa City citizens really the moral equivalent of discriminating against older citizens? Apparently so, according to Iowa City’s own human-rights ordinance enshrined in the city code:

“It shall be unlawful for any person to deny any other person the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages of any place of public accommodation because of age, color, creed, disability, gender identity, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation.”

Apparently staff brought this conflict to the attention of the city recently. In true Orwellian fashion, the council has decided to redefine human rights to specifically exclude the 21-ordinance as a human-rights violation. Poof. Age no longer matters.

City councilors chose a path of political expedience and hypocrisy. But what about the rest of us, those who don’t have political careers to protect or the need to publicly save face? Do we fold human rights neatly into a box that we call the law, or do the inalienable nature of such rights impel us to reconsider the law itself?

I wish that Sally Mason understood the irony that each time she extols the “nanny state” by promoting the 21-ordinance in a speech to the student council or in a press interview, she actually works against instructors who demand personal responsibility, hard work, and academic excellence in the classroom. Students rightly perceive the hypocrisy of the mixed message between rights and responsibilities: “Study hard, but be home in bed by 10 o’clock.”

One issue rarely mentioned is the example we’re setting for our ever-growing contingent of international students, many of whom hail from countries whose governments are considered less than democratic. These students are watching: Is America still the land of the free and the home of the brave? Are vulnerable minorities (in this case, young adults) treated with dignity and respect?

I call on students to vote YES on Public Measure G to affirm that you matter. (It’s especially easy for in-state and out-of-state students to register and vote early at campus locations before Oct. 25.)

Vote YES for your fellow students’ dignity and self-respect. Vote YES to show your international colleagues (international students) that the American dreams of freedom and equality are alive and well, right here in Iowa City.

Much has been debated about safety. The consensus seems to be that downtown is quieter but that house parties are better attended since 2010. But if the goal is a quiet downtown at the expense of freedom, then let’s be fair about it by passing a curfew that forbids everyone from being downtown after 10 p.m. Short of that, and in the great Iowan tradition of grace and fair play, let’s remove the human-rights violation known as the 21-ordinance. Vote yes on Public Measure G.

Blake Whitten is a lecturer in the Department of Economics and the Department of Statistics.

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