SHOULD YOUNG MEN be tried and convicted for violating the law requiring registration for the draft? A number of thoughtful readers, some of whose comments we printed last Thursday, evidently think not. We continue to disagree, respectfully, and we think the subject is worth addressing again, especially in light of the conviction on Thursday of a second student, Benjamin Sasway, for violating the law.
Some readers complain of our characterization of the draft registration law as "about the mildest intrusion on personal liberty a government interested in maintaining the possibility of conscription can make," and they complain of our comparison between this law and laws requiring motorists to stop at stop signs. But they are unable to describe any milder intrusion, and they say nothing that convinces us that the stop sign analogy is not apt. Governments put up stop signs and require registration for military service to protect, in different ways, the public safety. Governments have obligations to enforce these laws -- to protect others and to encourage obedience -- even against those who will not obey them because of a genuine religious belief that to obey such a law is wrong. The conscientiousness of that belief is a proper factor for a judge to consider in sentencing, but not one that should sway a prosecutor from bringing a case or a juror from returning a guilty verdict.
Mr. Sasway and, we suspect, most of those young men in violation of the law do not claim a religious objection. Their objections to the draft registration law are political. In a letter sent to President Carter in 1980 and which he has not repudiated since, Mr. Sasway said, "I am obligated to protest even simple registration since I feel the spirit of this mandate, like the actual conscription, is immoral and incompatible with a free society. Furthermore, I cannot allow myself to be forced into a military establishment that is too misdirected and too conservative to serve the country's interests." It is settled constitutional law that conscription is not incompatible with a free society; the argument that the military establishment is misdirected is by its very nature political. Mr. Sasway has been free, and would have been free had he registered, to try to persuade his fellow citizens that, by ordinary political means, his views are right and should be enacted into law. Violating the law requires that he be prosecuted.