Talkin' At Our Generation

The Arizona State Legislature has declared war on teenagers. A slew of bills introduced this session are aimed at eliminating the rights of nonadults to buy records, play loud music and drive cars. Capitol observers say they've never seen such an assault on youth's right to self-indulgent self-expression.

In a state where youth seemingly is heading to hell in a handbasket--if you go by gang violence, substance abuse, humiliating school dropout rates, rampant teen pregnancy and rowdy weekend behavior in general--get-tough legislation is a natural. This spring teens and their passions are a hot topic in the legislature, a body made otherwise impotent by endless intramural bickering over rarefied ideological postures and poses.

"We have a lot of legislators who I think are out of touch, there's no doubt about it," says Alan Stephens, minority (Democrat) leader in the Senate. "These people are interested in weird bills, anything to ignore the real issues of the day. When you talk about Martin Luther King, or transportation funding, tax increases or prioritizing the budget, they're all hiding under their desks."

From the perspective of your average peeping-over-the-desktop legislator, teens are the perfect nonconstituency. Kids don't read the papers, they don't write letters, don't hire lobbyists, don't testify at committee hearings and they don't vote. In the eyes of the law (and especially lawmakers), they are defenseless.

"One of the ironies of the law is, there isn't much protection against age discrimination unless it's in employment, and then it doesn't apply unless you're over forty," says Louis Rhodes, director of the Arizona affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. "I think a lot of it is gang-related. I think a lot of it has to do with drugs and alcohol in our society. We're increasingly wanting to control people's behavior, and it's very visible and easy to do by age category.

"All it's doing is creating a separate class of citizenship for these individuals who happen to be under a certain age. By the time you get to be 21, at the rate we're going, almost every kid is going to have some kind of record."

From the perspective of a soon-to-be-more-regulated teenager, the legislature is swinging its statutory scythe with way too much vigor. "The adults of our society feel they're losing control over us," says Elic Bramlett, one of a classroom full of advanced-placement history students at Cortez High School interviewed for this story. "They feel we're going to pot, that there's no future for today's youth. They feel they're losing control, and they feel they have to make more laws."

Following is a list of the teen-bashing bills that have made the capitol scene this spring. Jan Brewer's music-censorship bill, which set the session's moral agenda, went away last week, but its pedantic legacy remains in the form of several more bills designed to make teenagers miserable. The biggest grouping of anti-youth legislation blasts away at a kid's most precious legal possession, the inalienable right to drive a car as wildly as possible at all times.

By far the gnarliest element of House Bill 2131 would limit legal driving hours for everyone under eighteen. No longer would it be lawful for teens to cruise after midnight on weeknights, 1 a.m. on weekends. Several exceptions are written into the rule, and kids en route between home and work or participating in school-related functions are excused.

This legislation mandates that drivers age sixteen to eighteen get a "provisional" driver's license, but only after passing a driver-education class. The license would be automatically suspended after two moving traffic violations or a DUI conviction. Currently, teens are treated like adults, who accrue points against their license for movers, but who get to keep driving until they rack up eight points in one year--a total that could amount to as many as four or five moving violations.

"I'm a strict disciplinarian," says Jim Miller, the Phoenix Republican who sponsored the bill, "and I see no reason for sixteen- and seventeen-year-old kids . . . to be out at two or three in the morning."

Miller expects some resistance to the bill's curfew clause in the Senate, where it headed after passing out of the House last Thursday, but he's confident that Arizona's junior motorists will soon be getting much-needed mandatory training. "The main gist of this bill is to save these young people's lives, so they know that the automobile is a killing machine," he says. "The support I'm getting from parents is terrific."

The response Miller might get from most teens is less so. "They're doing this, in a way, because maybe they're jealous," says John Nelson, Cortez High history student. "Sure, they cruised Central, maybe, if they were here. . . . But they don't want us to have something better than they had in their teenage years."

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Dave Walker