By Gene Hall
The last sentence of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads: “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
That’s the full, incontrovertible and absolute justification for private property in these United States. Some think our First Amendment, freedom of speech, is the sole constitutional reason for American greatness. I’m on board with most of that. However, it’s the Fifth Amendment—guaranteeing the right to use private property—that is the economic foundation of our freedom.
Some believe this is a quaint and outmoded idea. Because of environmental concerns or the public’s interest and desire to use private lands, some argue that folks should have “freedom to roam.” In fact, this is what they call it in Europe. Farmers and private landowners there have to check with authority before they do anything with their land. They are pretty much powerless to prevent folks from roaming their property at will. This is one of the bad ideas our ancestors crossed the ocean 400 years ago to escape.
Recently, a Texas County Commissioners Court closed access to a private road that people had been using to gain access to a popular river site. A flood had washed out the public access. There was public outcry, but these commissioners’ action was both courageous and correct. The landowner did not want uninvited guests and that’s the end of it.
Some “visitors” consider the world their trash receptacle. Then there is the tendency of misguided souls to discharge firearms at various levels of inebriation. Things get muddled when people start talking about what the owner of private property “needs to do” or “should allow.” Beyond protecting the environment as it relates to that property, what happens on private land is not the business of anyone else.
We have eminent domain, a nasty law that is a necessary evil. Under the Fifth Amendment, private property can be taken for the public good, but only if you pay the owner for it. Some like to get around this by regulating the property and paying nothing. This, too, is now illegal in Texas.
We can discuss rights under our constitution. But they all count, and they all count equally. If we are going to tinker with the Fifth Amendment, the Second Amendment or any other, we should not be surprised if someday we learn that the First Amendment is “no longer in the public interest.”