Flowers and other plants would seem to be a part of nature. But not so, if it’s a petunia called Candy Bouquet and sold in garden shops. This flower, magenta and yellow, was bred in Germany by growers who manipulated the pollen to create a new color combination. Is the new design nature’s work, or can it be patented as being of human origin? The answer is important, says Marvin Miller, a market researcher. People are doing less gardening than before, so competition for remaining customers is fierce. (“A Fight over Petunia Look-alikes,” by Susan Decker and Matthew Townsend, Bloomberg Businessweek, May 10-22, 2016,pg. 32.) Now the courts will have to decide when a flower is a flower.
We humans are good at painting ourselves into definitional corners. In 1890, a corporation was a business. Today, a corporation is a person, endowed with an inalienable right to free speech. Fair enough. We’re struggling to live with that, though it goes against common sense. The question that follows is, “How do we define ‘free speech’?” The query becomes more pressing as cities pass ordinances that could be construed as limiting speech. One of the hot button debates is about panhandling.
In 2013, Don Norton and his wife, Karen, tired of being arrested for begging in Springfield, Illinois, found an attorney willing to argue that begging was protected under the First Amendment. The attorney won his case. Frank Easterbrook, federal appeals court judge, sums the ruling up this way: “Any law distinguishing one kind of speech from another by reference to its meaning now requires a compelling justification.” (“Brother, We Can Ask You to Spare a Dime,” by Tim Jones and Greg Stohr, Bloomberg Businessweek, May 10-22, 2016, pg. 39.)
Restaurant owners, trying to protect customers as they dine al fresco, don’t call panhandling a First Amendment right. They call it harassment, a punishable crime. (Ibid, pg. 39.) Mark Weinberg, the attorney for Norton and his wife thinks otherwise. “There is no compelling economic interest that justifies squelching free speech. (Ibid pg. 39.) Girl Scouts, who sell cookies on the street, would be obliged to agree with him.
For the moment, panhandling is protected under the First Amendment. I’m waiting to see what happens in cities across the nation when prostitutes begin standing on street corners, carrying a sign that reads, ‘Honey, can you spare a cuddle?”