WHEN it comes to the rights of youth, or youth-related rights, even the most democratic of governments is often at a loss as to how to assess them. A prevailing theory is that young people are impressionable and vulnerable and need to be molded and guided by adults. And even though they enjoy many privileges of citizens in a free society, somehow these rights are at a lower level - or less clear-cut - than those held by their adult counterparts.
Hence a string of important rulings by the United States Supreme Court, which, among other things, allows school searches of students without warrants or reasonable evidence of wrongdoing, restricts press freedom of campus newspaper editors, and waffles on whether children have a constitutional right to be free of corporal punishment inflicted by teachers or principals.
Granted, these decisions have been close, with dissenters pointing out that if young people are to have faith in the democratic process, they must enjoy maximum freedoms at an early age, even at the risk of allowing excessive behavior in some instances. These would include the right to protest what might be viewed as arbitrary restrictions on free speech and freedom of association.
Courts are increasing their protections of children and youth against physical and sexual abuse, even to the extent of providing special settings for interviewing and courtroom interrogation of very young children. Law in this area appears to be reaching a consensus.
Less clear are situations which deal with broad constitutional rights of all citizens, but impact mainly on the youth population.
Two cases recently heard by the high court illustrate this point. Ward v. Rock Against Racism is a carry-over from the youth political protests of the 1960s. Significantly, it comes to the court on the 20th anniversary of Woodstock.
The legal issue is the right of artistic expression for musical performers versus the responsibility of authorities to regulate noise levels in public areas.
To be adjudicated are questions of the broadness of protection for musical speech and what constitutes impermissible and intrusive governmental authority over it.
The case in point involves the constitutionality of a New York City noise-control ordinance requiring musicial groups at the Central Park band shell to use a city-supplied sound system and technician.
New York says it has a basic responsibility to all in the area to control noise levels in a public park. Perhaps so, counters Rock Against Racism (RAR) - a group which has sponsored an annual rally-concert at the band shell for a decade and describes itself as ``dedicated to the espousal and promotion of anti-racist views.'' RAR insists, however, that freedom of expression and association outweighs the city's considerations.
Regardless of the resolution of specific legal issues, the broader social questions speak to youth versus ``establishment.'' And the US high court may be at a loss to figure out a way to close the generation gap.
During oral arguments, the black-robed justices admitted that they knew little or nothing about rock concerts, much less sound amplification and musical sound mixes.
The justices may have similar difficulty with a Texas case, Dallas v. Stanglin, which raises the question whether communities should be allowed to bar anyone over 18 from dance halls that cater to minors.
A local ordinance which mandates such restrictions is being challenged by a proprietor on the basis of violation of the right of association. Dallas authorities point out that no such protection is spelled out in the Constitution. They say their statute is a way of keeping juveniles from the influence of older people who may lead them into criminal activities.
Is Dallas acting as a responsible and sheltering ``parent'' in trying to shield its youth from sinister adults? Or is it denying a basic right to youngsters to come in contact with those of all ages? Here again, the court can only make specific legal determinations, such as whether the implied right to associate - which it has in the past extended to adults in public facilities - applies to a youth-related situation.
Debate over the rights of youth is likely only to escalate in the future. Its implications for society are vast.
A Thursday column