Sunday, March 9, 2008

Youth Rights Post 2: Citizens at an Early Age?

My last Youth Rights post was all premise, and at best it succeeded only in explaining why 18 year olds can vote. That's a good thing to know, but it doesn't readily translate into why people younger than 18 should vote. With luck, this post will clear that up.

The definitive factor that granted the vote to 18 year olds was military considerations, and the notion that a drafted army can only draft citizens. As such, drafted soldiers have the vote. As do volunteer soldiers, with the exception of 17 year olds who can legally enlist with parental permission.

Fighting and dying for the nation, then, is not enough for an individual to have earned the vote - they have to face the possibility of being drafted against their will. Going back to the vote as consent, this means that people who could be drafted/have been drafted will be able to remove that consent, by voting for politicians opposed to continuing war. All straightforward, all restatements of what I said last post.

However, the draft as last written excludes over half the population by gender requirements. Debating a new draft that includes women is not my goal, nor is it a major concern for this post. But this gender requirement does mean that other factors must be important for full citizenship besides eligibility for military service. Some of these issues are mentioned in the previous post, but this time I'll consider each and the role it plays in citizenship.

1. The Drivers License

This isn't something granted exclusively to citizens, or granted as part of the "turned 18 - now a citizen" process. In fact, some states (New Mexico, for example) grant drives licenses to illegal immigrants. Drivers licenses are earned by requirements that vary state to state, but most include 3 requirements: being a certain age, passing a written test, and passing a road test. The latter two test necessary knowledge, the written test being on conventions and laws, and the driving test being on actual driving ability. The age requirement isn't a strict assumption of competence - in New Jersey and New York, it's higher (17 instead of 16, last time I checked) to help address the density of the population, and to limit the number of drivers on the rode. In New Mexico, a provisional license can be had at 15 and a half, and Western states in general have lower age requirements - partly less population density, partly the early age at which people enter into employment (and accompanying poor public transportation systems. The point here is that competence at driving alone can be assessed as early as two and a half years before citizenship is earned, and people can be subject to traffic laws that they can't vote for politicians to change. People willingly enter into this, as the benefits of being able to drive under existing laws outweigh the downside of not being able to repeal traffic laws they are subject to, but it also leads to some legal anomalies, like municipalities that make it illegal to talk on your cell phone while driving, but only make this illegal for teenagers.

2. Rights in School

Teenagers in public school have reduced free speech, as has been ruled in the Supreme Court, but they do still have rights to free speech. This shows up periodically, with clothing choices or political protest (or hugging, apparently). This is a right enshrined in the US constitution as the first amendment, and it is especially important in academia. Discourse and free thought, the underlying aims of free speech, are essential to citizenship, and to an informed electorate. However, the right doesn't just safeguard speech deemed appropriately valuable for society - personal expression and individual differentiation are also covered, and many legal cases for student rights revolve around either the intellectual value of the student's action, or on how constraining the students action would only serve to make more free speech, especially the valuable free speech, difficult or impossible. Teenagers' free speech is more subject to rulings based on the value of that speech, but this shouldn't be seen as detrimental to youth rights. Rather, it is a beneficial scrutiny, one that time and time again has validated teenage expression. The scrutiny is, however, a test that is rarely applied to citizens in the public arena (although the test is extended to teachers in the schools).

The point of this free speech would be meaningless if society thought teenagers opinions didn't matter, and if this free speech wasn't seen as a precursor to engaging in public discourse latter in life. There are other examples of "training-wheel rights" granted to high schoolers, the most notable one being student government, but the bigger issue at stake in youth rights and education has more to do with education theory.

Public education is provided at taxpayer expense as a social right. The trick, however, is figuring out whose right that is. Is it the parents who have the right to send their children to school, the child who has a right to attend school, or the adult who has a right to have gone to school as a child? Citizenship rights in regards to public schooling focus primarily on the former and the latter, as they deal with adults. The actual people in schools, students, aren't the people the school system is designed to serve. Parents want the kids to have an education that meets their goals, and the adults who graduate from public school want to have had an education that is valuable to them. These people, parents and former students, will vote in local elections and for school board members based on their past experience of public schooling, based on their children's experience as best they know it, and based on the detached criterion of tax concerns (not all that detached, but often far from the students minds). Students unhappy with how they are being served by the public institution they are legally obligated to attend can complain to parents, can hope that their schools student government has some form of meaningful power, or can at a specific age (in New Mexico, 16) exempt themselves from the system. They have some rights in this situation, but the big problem is that the only way for an individual to formally deny consent to this process is to opt out of the system. It's not an exact comparison, but it's like disagreeing with municipal authorities and then moving away. In the US, we value working for change instead of running away from problems, and its a bad system that has running as a primary recourse. Teenagers, as participants (and mandatory participants) in the public education deserve some say in how that institution is run, and in a way that makes the teenagers being educated at least as important a constituency as the parents of small children, and as adults who had been educated.

3. Rights to Work

I don't have the numbers, and I'm hesitant to trust the NYRA's numbers at face value, but regardless; lots of teenagers hold down jobs, for lots of reasons, and it isn't primarily summer jobs. Youth work, some of them very hard and as a matter of survival. Teenagers traditionally get low paying jobs, with minimal required skill sets, that see lots of turnover. This isn't an objection to the system - the jobs are in theory aged out of, and teenagers will always be willing to work them. It does mean, however, that there will always be a significant amount of teenagers who are taxpayers, and that these taxpayers can't vote. These taxpayers are operating under reduced rights, and they will have to age into a position where they can seek redress from politicians. Not the biggest of concerns certainly, but this is a nation founded on strong belief in the rights of taxpayers as citizens.

4. Rights of Youth and Rights of Parents

Lots of rights can be seen as conferred to youth through parents, and this is a huge gray area. The debate stretches back to conception, where rights of baby/fetus and mother are argued in regards to abortion. Not delving into that here, the general trend is more and more government acknowledged freedom for the child as they age. Children can (again, using NM as my example) be legally left alone at 10, and at 12 can be left alone in charge of other children below the age of 10. At 14-15, with parental consent, they can apply for workers permits, and parental consent is a requirement for most activities at school, up until the teenager is either old enough by judgment of a ratings board (movies, shown at school or elsewhere) or is 18 and can sign their own forms. Even donating blood for those younger than 18 requires parental consent. A lot of this is trust placed with the parent in knowing what is best for the child, and judgments are made on behalf of the parents right to parent. Rights to parent are lost at times, usually in unpleasant circumstances where the governments obligation to protect the child supersedes the parents right to raise the child (this is why child's services exists). Children can also remove themselves from having a legal guardian through teenager emancipation, which is a concerted effort that secures some rights of the parent onto the child, but more importantly denies those rights to the parent.

This whole topic is a big, messy arena, but the key points to get out of it are that 1) parents have a right to raise their children into functioning and independent adults, 2) that the government has a right to remove a child from its parents authority if the government can justify doing so is in the interest of the safety of the child, and 3) teenagers can remove themselves from parents legal authority, provided they are willing to go through (and know about) the whole process of emancipation.


This is a huge topic, trying to reverse engineer citizenship rights so that they apply to youth. We have clear examples of citizenship conferring a right in the form of draft eligibility and the right to vote. Voluntary enlistment at 17 with parental consent limits military service as the domain of the voting citizen, so we must look at what is involuntary. This doesn't help case 1, where a drivers license is obtained from a voluntary process. That case does, however, allow us to examine rights that are earned through the completion of specific tasks; merit-based rights, at a rudimentary form. Public school attendance is involuntary to a point, but attending school doesn't confer rights. This can then be seen with education for children as the right of the adult that child will be, and as the right of the child's parent. The rights of the child as they attend school are still worth considering, and if one believes that schooling is the right of the current student, the case can be made for giving current students the right to vote. Tax-paying is involuntary, and workers who have to pay taxes are almost always entitled to a say in how those taxes are spent; teenage workers being an exception that I feel is worth correcting. Lastly, we have the rights of the parent in conflict with the rights of the youth, where the interests of government, the parents, and the youth itself are all involved. Here, granting citizenship to the youth would lead to a transformation of the dynamic, and may well be seen as infringing upon the rights of the parent.

Youth rights are a difficult concern, and I've tried here to tie youth concerns into the fundamental concerns of citizens, especially the right to give and withdraw consent to and from government. This approach is lacking in many areas, and places all its emphasis on youth as fulfilling the roles and obligations of citizens without receiving the rights. Still, I think this is a valuable concern, and that youth rights must, at its core, be seen as expanding citizenship.

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