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COLUMN: Smoking ban talk not actually about smoking

A fresh take

Associate Dean, College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Published: Monday, February 3, 2014

Updated: Monday, February 3, 2014 18:02

There are two kinds of arguments being advanced for making the USU campus smoke-free. Neither of them is any good.

The first argument, advanced by Daryn Frischknecht, is based on the claim that students have the right to breathe clean air. Of course, the people of Logan are acutely aware of the dangers of unclean air, since there are times when we have the worst air in the nation. So we can all agree that clean air is what we call “a very good thing.” But is there a right to clean air?

If there is, then we have a much bigger project to tend to. Car emissions are a far more egregious violation of this alleged right; the impact of second-hand smoke is basically zero by comparison. If polluting the air really does violate a human right, we should be pulling all stops to sharply reduce or eliminate car traffic, both on campus and off campus. But if we are reluctant to do this, then we don't believe that breathing clean air is a right. We're not really talking about a right. We're talking about something else.

What else are we talking about? My guess is that Frischknecht and many others just don't like the smell of cigarette smoke. They find it annoying or disgusting, and they would rather not have it around. But if this is what's going on, then our effort instead should be to see how we can reduce the friction between smokers and nonsmokers, in order to keep the annoyance at a minimum. We could enforce the prohibition from smoking within 25 feet of building entrances, or we could establish smoking zones so that those who wish to smoke can do so without bringing too much annoyance to others.

The second "argument" is the effort by USU to survey faculty, staff and students. I'm thinking of this survey as an "argument" if the aim is to establish what we ought to do by how most people feel. That might sound like a harmless principle — "Isn't that what democracy is?", people might ask — but in fact the principle, if we simply follow it, can allow a majority to impose policies that conflict with a deeper mission of our institution. The deeper mission I'm thinking of is the mission of a public university to encourage both diversity and tolerance for differences among people.

Some history will show what I mean. Years ago — I'm told — there was a place in the student center called The Briar. It was a smoke-filled coffee shop, bustling with activity and interesting discussions. When Utah passed its first indoor clean air act in 1995, one of the most vocal advocates for keeping The Briar open was Val R. Christensen, the vice president of Student Services at the time. Christensen — who didn't smoke, by the way — believed that a university should welcome differences among people and should show special hospitality to people visiting campus whose customs are quite different from our own. He believed part of the university experience is exposure to differences and the active encouragement of tolerant attitudes. This, he thought, was an important service of the institution, and so should be preserved even in the face of majority votes.

There may be a long list of things most folks on campus would rather not put up with — smoking, coffee drinking, R-rated movies, T-shirts with edgy messages — but we should keep in mind that the university has the job of preparing students for a very diverse and interesting world that does not mirror Utah in many respects. The smoking issue is a relatively small one, I know, but it does connect with this broader mission, and that should be borne in mind.

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