Monday, June 27, 2005


Wulfgar gives a thorough (and profane) spanking to Karl Rove and his defenders.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Sen. Burns' domain

Just came back from ZooMontana, where the new Bear Meadows project was unveiled. It's a pretty big project: three acres and four bears, including a Kodiak, grizzly and possibly a Russian bear. Norilsk Nickel is putting up a million bucks to build it, and its subsidiary, the Stillwater Mining Co., will chip in $25,000 a year for each of the next 10 years to maintain it. The zoo hopes to break ground in September and have the exhibit open in time for the Lewis and Clark Signature Event next summer.

I took the occasion to ask Sen. Conrad Burns, who was recognized for his part in brokering the deal, about the flag-burning amendment. He's for it, of course, but wouldn't predict whether it would pass. He was much more interested in last week's eminent domain ruling, which he called the most damaging ruling ever to come out of the Supreme Court. He said the Senate would consider ways to repair the damage this week, but he said no proposal was on the table.

I still haven't gotten around to reading the opinion, but I'm still skeptical that it will turn out as bad as it sounds. While the ruling may have removed some constitutional protection, it still leaves states and cities (and their voters) the power to treat their own citizens justly. I suspect we'll see a rush by states to add stronger private property protections to eminent domain statutes.

Dave Budge, still hot on the story, has Burns' official reaction here.

Friday, June 24, 2005

More on the flag

Excellent case here by Eugene Volokh against the flag amendment.

I heard more conservative sentiment against the flag amendment on the radio yesterday. I didn't listen to Glenn Beck, but my daughter said he spoke against it. O'Reilly made a pro forma case for the amendment, but he had Judge Napolitano on to expose its weaknesses. The strongest case O'Reilly made was that he couldn't think of a good reason why someone should burn the flag, so it was OK to ban burning. Now there's a solid basis for determining the powers of limited government.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Meanwhile, back at the court

Dave Budge has good stuff on the Supreme Court decision this morning on eminent domain. I haven't had time to look at the opinion, but my instincts are on the side of the dissenters. Still, I think this is a close call, and a 5-4 decision is perhaps no surprise. While I don't think the government has any business taking property from one citizen so that another can profit, figuring this out when the public good is involved might be trickier than it appears.

Long may it burn

Good discussion this morning on "Berg in the Morning" about the flag-desecration amendment. Surprisingly, most callers seemed to agree, more or less, with my position. Could this be another issue on which citizens are far ahead of their elected representatives?

Anyway, I was stirred enough to fire off this e-mail to Berg:

Thanks for articulating the correct conservative position on the flag-desecration amendment. But I think you were too dismissive of the caller who asked how you would distinguish between flag burning as an act of respect for a tattered flag and flag burning as an act of desecration. You may think you can tell the difference, but that isn't good enough: The law is going to have to define the difference.

Supporters of the amendment say it would punish conduct, not speech. But if the law is going to allow flag burning for one purpose and prohibit for another, then it has to distinguish between those two similar acts of conduct. So what will be punished is not flag burning itself, but the attitude and motives of those doing the burning. That's dangerous power to give the government.

You are correct that the amendment likely would increase rather than reduce flag burning. Suppose, for example, I want to protest the amendment by burning a flag. Suppose I take a flag that is slightly tattered, burn it gently while playing taps, and then make a speech arguing that the flag should be burned because the amendment has made the flag into a meaningless symbol. Would that behavior be protected or barred by the amendment? How far would the government allow citizens to stretch the limits of the amendment?

One more point: Although it's referred to as the "flag-burning amendment," the amendment actually says nothing about burning flags. It prohibits "physical desecration" of the flag. What courts might construe that to mean I can't predict, but it's conceivable that it could mean that all sorts of behavior could become a federal crime: wearing a flag patch on your blue jeans, flying a tattered flag, flying a flag in the rain, waving tiny flags at parades, etc. Do we really want all of these offenses to be constitutional issues?

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Oh, say can you scorch

Once again, the U.S. House has voted for a constitutional amendment that would ban physical desecration of the U.S. flag. Observers say that for the first time, the measure has a good chance of passing the Senate, too.

This fight is getting old. I've written about it numerous times over the years, including here (see the last item, then note Pat Dawson's infantile comment). I've made more extended arguments, but either I can't find them or they appeared in the ancient pre-web days.

Let's settle here for just one point: "physical desecration" is a fundamentally dishonest term. Except among idol worshippers, the quality of sacredness exists solely in the mind and soul of the observer. You can't physically desecrate things that exist only in people's heads. The flag's value is purely symbolic, and the freedom to choose for ourselves what symbols we hold sacred is about as fundamental as freedom gets. By protecting the flag, we diminish it.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Durbin goes down

Sen. Dick Durbin has caught all kinds of grief for comments supposedly comparing American treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo to actions of Nazis, Soviet gulags, Pol Pot, etc. People have called for an apology, resignation, even charges of treason.

That's crazy talk. Have any of these people read what he actually said? He cited a few examples of prisoner abuse and said that if listeners didn't know otherwise, they would have assumed that he was talking about some evil regime.

Which is true. Or at least it was until the revelations of recent months. If, say, three or four years ago, I had read you an account of people charged with no crime being chained to the floor so long they pissed on themselves, with no food or water, and asked you to identify who did that, you would not have guessed America. That isn't us - or at least it isn't the way we think of ourselves.

That was Durbin's point: not that we are the same as evil regimes but that we have done some things lately that more closely resemble evil regimes than they resemble our own ideals and beliefs.

The fact that Pol Pot, the Nazis and Soviets all did much worse things is irrelevant to Durbin's point. Hitler and Stalin murdered millions, but they also chained people in cells without food or water. It was the sort of banal cruelty we associate with totalitarian states, along with their more horrific acts. Durbin's point wasn't that we are same as them; his point was that we take great pride in being far better than that. And when we do things that sound like something a brutal tyranny might have done, then we'd better straighten up.

To say that's an insult to law-abiding and humane soldiers is simply perverse. And to call it treason is to rob the word of all meaning.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

That law-breaking City Council

Good discussion over at City Lights over the legality of the settlement with City Administrator Kristoff Bauer. My own story won't appear until tomorrow, but I don't think there is any serious question that the way the agreement was approved violates the 2002 Montana Supreme Court ruling in the Bryan case.

This case, actually, is a much easier call in my view. I thought the Bryan ruling was odd because it appeared to leave open the possibility that a governing body might have to provide the public with all sorts of odd bits of information to ensure citizens had a reasonable opportunity to provide input on a decision. For example, a board member's handwritten notes, public comments from an earlier meeting that weren't entered into the minutes, even casual conversations between board members and the public might conceivably fall within the scope of that ruling. Very strange.

But there's nothing quirky about this case. We're talking here about a formal and explicit agreement of clear interest and importance to the public with no opportunity at all for public input. That just strikes me as dead on point with the intent of the Bryan ruling. It seemed particularly troubling that when I asked the mayor whether the city had considered the Bryan ruling before proceeding as it did, he seemed uncertain what I was referring to. The city attorney didn't return my phone call.

And I don't even think that's the oddest thing about the agreement. More troubling to me is the provision that says no council member other than the mayor or deputy mayor can discuss Bauer's employment. This strikes me as an egregious attempt to curb the First Amendment rights of council members. Bauer and Tooley argue that privacy rights require this sort of provision, but previous court rulings have been pretty clear and consistent: As long as council members are discussing job performance, as opposed to personal matters of a highly private or embarrassing nature, then the public's right to know takes precedence over Bauer's interest in preserving his professional reputation.

True, there doesn't appear to be much satisfaction in exposing this sort of thing. As long as the city is acting in even plausibly good faith, it can simply vote again after removing offending language and allowing public comment. A measure backed by the Montana Newspaper Association (not the Montana News Association!) that would have imposed criminal penalties for willful violations of the public's right to know didn't get through the Legislature. Still, this sort of thing ought to be pointed out, and I'm glad the Gazette did it. I just wish I could have gotten my own story out first.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Cyphers vs. Tussing

I'm not saying that Donald Cyphers of the Montana News Association didn't deserve a shove from former Police Chief Ron Tussing during a news conference on Wednesday. But I will say that the incident raises more questions in my mind about how well the chief could handle moving from the office of police chief, where tough guys are in demand, to the relatively weak office of mayor, which requires considerable diplomacy and tact to get anything done.

Cyphers is far from the toughest problem a mayor has to face. And I think I know what I'm talking about here. Until Chief Tussing came along, I was the Montana News Association's No. 1 target. See, for example, here and in mysteriously anonymous letters here and here.

Why me? It might have had something to do with things I wrote here, here, here and here.

For whatever reason, he's been gunning for us for better than three years. He's threatened to sue us for removing copies of his newspaper that he placed without our permission on our racks. He's threatened to sue us for bad-mouthing him to his customers. He's threatened to sue us for things we've told people who called us to ask for information about his business.

It may not quite be in the class of the attacks he's made on Tussing, but it counts when you're operating a business so fragile that any lawsuit, regardless of its merits, is a threat to take you under.

But you know what, Chief? It ain't that bad. As headaches go, Cyphers is one aspirin in the morning and go about your business. He's a gnat. Mayors have elephants to shoot.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Powwow Park

Here's a website devoted to the Powwow Park controversy.

UPDATE: For some reason, the link doesn't work. You'll have to navigate there the old-fashioned way:

Monday, June 06, 2005

Raving loonies

Every once in a while I get an inexplicable urge to bait the wild-eyed fringe. Those who are stout of heart (and strong of stomach) can sample the latest carnage by scrolling through the comments here.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

AJR on Lee

AJR has a lengthy piece on Lee Enterprises. The company gets at least two cheers, with a grade of incomplete. The Montana angle is fairly weak, but the piece generally describes the company I know: not awful, but not much to get excited about either. One piece of luck for Lee: So many other newspaper companies are getting worse so fast that Lee keeps looking better by comparison.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

V.P. update

Way back here, I wondered what a vice president does anyway. Doonesbury has the answer.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Closed for vacation

In the comments over at City Lights, someone noted that seems to have hung up his keyboard. It's not the first time that Craig has threatened to cut back or quit, but this time he sure looks serious.

Too bad. He always has been a considerate blog host and fun to joust with on various political disagreements. But when, as he says, he's not "having any damn fun anymore," maybe it is time to quit.

Of course, I've quit blogging a few times myself. I always feel guilty when I blog because I think I should be working on the newspaper (like now). And I feel guilty when I don't blog because I think I'm missing out on something that might be transforming journalism. Also, I might be letting down dozens of readers. It's the perfect guilt experience. So I know where Craig's coming from.

Less selfishly, with Dirt Between Light Bulbs' recent inactivity, Craig's closing is another blow against the chance for an all-out blog war during next year's election. If an election is held in the fall, and no one is there to blog it, does it really happen?