Scary laws won't make Halloween safer
Posted on October 24, 2020
The prospect of police scouring suburban streets to enforce trick-or-treating bans gives a whole new meaning to the term “witch hunt.”
From New England to the California coast, cities have Halloween customs in the crosshairs as coronavirus cases surge and public health officials warn that door-to-door candy collection increases infection risks.
In Texas, El Paso County and Hidalgo County enacted emergency orders that forbid trick-or-treating. The time-honored tradition is against the law this year in Worcester, Massachusetts; Plainfield, New Jersey; Greenville, Mississippi; and Lumberton, North Carolina.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said outdoor trick-or-treating can proceed, but costumed children can’t make their rounds inside apartment buildings. Some local governments are limiting the size of neighborhood candy caravans and setting trick-or-treat hours or curfews.
Elsewhere, communities have avoided mandatory restrictions and instead are asking families to take precautions. Los Angeles County initially said trick-or-treating was prohibited, but health officials revised that pronouncement and now say it’s merely “not recommended.”
Is keeping costumed superheroes, pirates, monsters and ghosts off neighbors’ front porches really a legitimate exercise of government power? Would judges rubber-stamp efforts to enforce Halloween laws that many Americans find intrusive?
Trick-or-treating is a form of door-to-door solicitation entitled to First Amendment protection, Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Daniel M. Ortner wrote last year. In an 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court struck down an Ohio village ordinance that imposed misdemeanor charges for canvassing without a permit. The 2002 case affirmed Jehovah’s Witnesses’ right to ring your doorbell.
“Trick-or-treating is consistent with this tradition of expressive door-to-door activity,” Ortner wrote. “A trick-or-treater’s costume can be a form of speech protected against government censorship. Costumes are a way for people to express their likes and dislikes, and even to comment on politics and social issues.”
Free speech, however, can be subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions without running afoul of the First Amendment. And courts agree the preservation of public health is a compelling government interest that can justify some temporary limits on personal liberty.
Sarah Wetter, an attorney and law fellow at Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, told The Charlotte Observer she believes trick-or-treat bans would be upheld.
“In this case, the ban would be justified by the government’s interest in curbing the spread of infectious disease,” Wetter wrote in an email. “This is the same type of authority that officials used to implement curfews and ban large gatherings back in the spring.”
Whether or not courts would ultimately side with them, cities should choose education over enforcement. If the goal is voluntary compliance, why create conflict by turning guidelines into rules that must be followed under penalty of fine or arrest?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says traditional trick-or-treating poses a high risk of COVID-19 transmission and suggests “one-way trick-or-treating where individually wrapped goodie bags are lined up for families to grab and go while continuing to social distance” as an alternative.
That’s a reasonable solution to a pandemic problem, and it’s one many people would embrace even without petty pooh-bahs threatening to sic the cops on them.
While the coronavirus poses unique obstacles to holiday celebrations we haven’t faced in years past, Halloween hysteria is old hat for some local governments. Cities and towns have designated official trick-or-treating days when Halloween falls in the middle of the week, set deadlines to shoo kids indoors a couple hours after dark and even adopted age limits to deter teenage trick-or-treaters.
That kind of meddling wasn’t useful before COVID-19, and it isn’t necessary now.
Traditionalists may think it’s silly, but there’s nothing to prevent neighbors and friend groups from coordinating their own trick-or-treat day if Oct. 31 is inconvenient. Parents can determine when their children are too old to ring doorbells. And why set an arbitrary curfew? Kids make their way home when candy bowls are empty and porch lights go dim.
Not every human interaction cries out for government regulation. Halloween was humming along just fine when we left it to families and neighborhoods to work out the details.
Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times and executive editor of Restoration NewsMedia. In this weekly column for Creators Syndicate, he explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.
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