Scarp: Your rights may be fewer than they appear - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Voices

Scarp: Your rights may be fewer than they appear

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Mark J. Scarp is a contributing columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at mscarp1@cox.net.

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2013 12:07 pm | Updated: 6:25 pm, Fri Mar 8, 2013.

We have all seen those strings of legal words in commercials set in type too small to read, even if you push the pause button and affix your eyeball directly to the TV screen.

A state legislator wants to put one on your ballot. Seems she thinks you might not be aware of something about those propositions that you need to be told as your pen is poised over them.

As much as they just seem to be legal gibberish, some of the TV disclaimers are simply good safety advice: “Keep out of the reach of children” is reasonable enough, as is, “Keep away from fire or flame.”

Many more are of the “killjoy” variety. These disclaimers, when fully read and understood, can take all the magic out of what they’re advertising completely away. Take, for example, cars.

You watch a car commercial and see a sleek, powerful-looking ride whipping around city streets or swiftly navigating hairpin curves in the country, both scenes usually depicted as devoid of other cars.

And just as you’re imagining you're sitting behind the wheel, these words fade in on the bottom of the screen: “Professional driver, closed course. Do not attempt.”

So why pay 40 grand for it when you have to obey the speed limit? Killjoys.

Many other disclaimers appear to be good safety advice but are just patently obvious, as was this one, actually used in a recent commercial that showed a car going over a precipice but not falling and crashing, instead heading straight ahead through the sky: “Cars cannot fly.”

No joke. But most are of the killjoy variety, such as:

“Results are not typical.”

“Your mileage may vary.” (A holdover phrase from last week’s column. Sorry.)

“What you’re voting on cannot be changed by the Legislature, just by another public vote.”

State Rep. Michelle Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, has proposed a form of this last one. As Capitol Media Services’ Howard Fischer reported in the Tribune last week, Ugenti is introducing House Bill 2007, which requires notice on ballot questions telling voters how hard it would be to reverse them if passed.

As Fischer reported, in the late 1990s, Arizona voters passed a proposition that forbade the Legislature from repealing or substantially changing any law passed by vote of the people. Only the voters themselves can do that.

Since then, voters might want to take back a few things they approved. One was requiring no tax increases without approval of two-thirds of the Legislature. There aren’t that many lawmakers willing to do that, even though in recent years, during the state budget crisis brought on by the last recession, some polls showed significant segments of the electorate in favor of some tax increases.

“If you were at a store,” Fischer quoted Ugenti as saying, “and you knew the item you were about to buy you couldn’t return, would that have an impact on your purchase?”

Could be, sure. But the store itself is placing warning signs at the checkout counter. There’s no law saying the government is making them do it.

Yet Ugenti’s bill doesn’t stop at including this warning on the ballot, or even the publicity pamphlet paid for and mailed to voters at government expense weeks before Election Day.

Her proposal also would require including such notices in any campaign advertising.

It’s another example of good intentions encroaching on the right of free speech. The First Amendment says the government shall not restrict that right. Well, telling you what to say in a campaign, even with noble intentions, does exactly that.

One is legally responsible for the consequences of any lack of truth or any falsehood in one’s statements, of course, but only after the statements are made. HB 2007 tells you what to say before you say it in private funded campaign materials, whether print, broadcast, online.

And so warnings would have to appear on the bottom of TV screens or print ads, or muttered by fast-talking announcers on radio, in advertising paid for by private citizen committees in favor or opposed to a ballot question.

And where could this required government advice keep going if HB 2007 becomes law? For example, should voters also be told in advertising that if they pass a ballot question, by law it doesn’t become effective until 90 days after the election?

Yes, we have the warnings on cigarettes. But it’s one thing to debate whether to include a surgeon general’s warnings on public health. It’s another to talk about whether you should receive a political general’s warning as well, even in the name of enlightening voters. That starts a journey down a path the government should not be on. And the part of HB 2007 requiring it should be deleted.

Otherwise, the enjoyment of your free speech rights may vary.

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