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DECENCY FOR WOMEN



Published: Tue, August 27, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



DECENCY FOR WOMEN

Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune: Does George W. Bush have something against women? Hard to imagine, seeing as how he's married to one and father to two others. Why, then, is the president so reluctant to embrace an international treaty affirming basic rights for women in families far away? Surely his regard for womanhood doesn't stop at his own kitchen table.

He must know that not all the world's kitchens are home to well-treated women. Many are virtual slaves to their husbands and fathers -- deprived of education, of health care, of freedom to speak or work, of respect. Yet despite these sad facts of 21st-century life, President Bush is trying to block a global treaty that could ultimately bring liberty to the world's suffering women. Called the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women -- CEDAW for short -- it would do little to change the lives of American women. But over the long haul, it could become an instrument to nudge balky countries toward decent treatment of women.

Second thoughts

CEDAW hardly counts as a new idea. It's been sitting around in the Senate since its submission nearly 20 years back. Its chief goal is to assure that women have the same access men have long enjoyed to education, to self-determination and to property ownership. After liberating the women of Afghanistan from the Taliban's thrall last winter, the White House was all for the treaty. But just as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved it last month, the administration was entertaining second thoughts.

What sorts of thoughts? After all these years, it's hard to imagine. Conjecture has it that this is another instance of administration kowtowing to right-wing worrywarts who fear that women's rights could actually be a cover for abortion rights. That's nonsense, of course, and fortunately the White House won't acknowledge it shares that fear. All it will say is that it needs "more time" to study the treaty.

But what's to study? If the administration wants details, it can try these on for size: Two-thirds of the 125 million children who never go to school are girls. Two-thirds of the world's poorest people are women and their children. More than 100 million women worldwide have endured genital mutilation. Two million girls are sold into forced prostitution every year. Half a million women die every year as a result of pregnancy or childbirth. Another 1.3 million die of AIDS. In many nations across the globe, women are beaten and raped as a matter of course.

Clear standard of decency

Which of these grim facts appeals to the White House? Surely none does. Indeed, these sad circumstances of women's lives were the original inspiration for CEDAW. No one dreams they can be rectified overnight. But the 170 countries that have signed on to the women's rights pact hold out hope that setting a clear standard of decency will slowly shame rights violators toward compliance. The strategy has worked with other human-rights ventures -- stirring once-recalcitrant countries to honor entitlements habitually flouted. There's every reason to think -- at least to hope -- that the approach will work with CEDAW.

If the Bush administration has a better idea, then out with it.

FREE SPEECH FOR NIKE

Washington Post: Criticize a person's conduct, and he or she has a free speech right to respond aggressively. Does that right extend to a corporation? Not according to the California Supreme Court. Late last month, that court declined to reconsider an earlier ruling permitting Nike to be sued over statements the company made during a public relations campaign. The state high court had held that statements by Nike in response to criticism of its overseas business practices were commercial speech that, if false, could subject the company to liability under state law. If allowed to stand, the California court's ruling would have profoundly negative consequences for open debate. That fact alone underscores the importance of Nike's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and the major showdown that is likely to occur there this coming term.

Labor conditions

The case arose out of the torrent of criticism Nike suffered over labor conditions at the Asian factories where contractors make its famed sneakers. Nike officials responded to the negative publicity by writing a series of letters to newspaper editors, issuing press releases, corresponding with university presidents and sports directors in defense of its record, and buying newspaper advertising. All of this seems like exactly the sort of speech that the First Amendment was meant to protect. Yet California law allows anyone to sue a company engaged in false advertising and unfair business practices. A man named Marc Kasky did just that, contending that Nike's claims during its campaign were not political speech but false and deceptive commercial speech intended to sell its product. The California court, without deciding whether Nike's statements were false, agreed by a 4 to 3 vote that the state's consumer laws covered the company's media campaign.

This standard is dangerous. Factual errors are part of any robust back-and-forth and do not generally nullify the constitutional protection afforded to speech. That must be as true of Nike as it is of its critics. As one of the dissenting justices put it, "While Nike's critics have taken full advantage of their right to 'uninhibited, robust, and wide-open' debate, the same cannot be said of Nike, the object of their ire.... Full speech protection for one side and strict liability for the other will hardly promote vigorous and meaningful debate."

Vexing problem

Nor does the fact that product advertising may be regulated mean that all corporate speech is different from other speech. Nike's efforts to sell shoes simply aren't in the same category as its efforts to deny publicly that it is violating the basic rights of workers. Drawing the precise line between a sales effort and actions to improve the climate for sales by talking to the public may be a vexing problem. But Nike's campaign was not close to any reasonable line. The purpose of its communications was not merely to sell shoes but to change minds. And the protection of efforts to change minds is the very essence of free speech.

Under the California court's standard, many of the letters (newspapers receive) every day would be grist for lawsuits -- not against (the newspapers), but against the companies whose representatives sent the letters. That cannot be right. The Supreme Court should clarify that it isn't.




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