Editorials

The Jack Sprat Law

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is backing a powerful piece of legislation that will do wonders for the health of New York restaurant patrons: banning all but tiny amounts of trans fat from the city’s 20,000 restaurants.

The proposed law echoes the Mayor’s smoking ban, enacted four years ago. That law has transformed the experience of dining out in the city: No longer are diners subject to inhaling a waft of cancerous secondhand smoke as they attempt to enjoy a meal. And waiters and waitresses no longer operate in a hazardous work environment. When the Mayor first announced his anti-smoking proposal, of course, there was a great outcry from restaurant and bar owners, who predicted a massive loss of business, as well as from civil libertarians, who griped about smokers’ rights while conveniently forgetting about the rights of non-smokers to breathe clean, non-carcinogenic air. Four years later, the smoking ban is a winner. Business in bars and restaurants is booming, and even France— sacré bleu!—announced last week that, beginning a year from now, it will forbid smoking in restaurants and nightclubs.

Now the Mayor and city Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden are moving against trans fat. The typical American consumes about 5.8 grams of trans fat each day; a side order of French fries can contain eight grams of the stuff. Trans fats raise the level of “bad” cholesterol while lowering the level of “good” cholesterol. A Harvard study concluded that if trans fat were cut from American diets, as many as 228,000 heart attacks could be prevented annually.

The city’s proposal would restrict trans fat to a half gram per serving. The personal benefit to individual New Yorkers, and the benefit to the city in saved health-care costs, will be enormous. “It would be like putting the whole population on a mild cholesterol-lowering statin,” said the author of the Harvard study, Dr. Walter Willett. “Probably nothing else you could do would have such a great impact on mortality.”

Chaos at Columbia

What’s going on up at Columbia University? While the school is in the middle of an ambitious, $4 billion fund-raising drive, local events on campus are giving the impression of a university out of control. And unlike the celebrated student protests that roiled Morningside Heights in the 1960’s, the recent controversies are driven not so much by passion as by political correctness and an administration, led by president Lee Bollinger, which is failing to find a voice.

Last week, during a speech by the leader of the Minuteman Project—a conservative, anti-immigration group that has recruited volunteers to patrol the border with Mexico—several students stormed the stage, turned over chairs and prevented the speaker from continuing.

The students claimed to be representing the viewpoint of immigrant groups, but what they were actually practicing was the violent thwarting of free speech. Rather than advance their own argument, they merely advanced brutality. To put the final touch on their absurd actions, they had the arrogance to link their cause to the civil-rights movement.

Mr. Bollinger found himself in a similar uncomfortable spot last year, when several Columbia students complained that some professors were mocking their pro-Israel beliefs with anti-Semitic taunts, at which point the professors started to complain that Mr. Bollinger wasn’t doing enough to stand up for them.

It’s too much, of course, to expect a university to hum silently along like a Swiss watch. Indeed, a true engagement with ideas requires a constant and often boisterous friction. But in order for that to happen, a university president must lead with a coherent voice and create an atmosphere of respect, tolerance and dignity. One hopes Mr. Bollinger will bring this great Ivy League institution out of its current predicament.

The Innocence Project

When Scott Fappiano was released from prison last week after spending more than 20 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, his lawyer, Nina Morrison, described the turn of events as “no small miracle.”

But that miracle came about not through divine intervention, but through the hard work, dedication and idealism of a group called the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that uses DNA evidence to exonerate convicts wrongfully imprisoned. The lawyers and staff who labor on behalf of imprisoned innocents deserve our deepest gratitude and respect. They work for justice by correcting injustice.

Mr. Fappiano was charged with raping the wife of a Brooklyn police officer in 1983. The victim identified Mr. Fappiano in a police lineup, and he was convicted of the crime in 1985. Mr. Fappiano insisted that he was innocent, and the Innocence Project took up his cause. Now, all these years later, DNA tests show that somebody else committed the crime. Mr. Fappiano, his youth stolen, is now free to get on with the rest of his life.

Mr. Fappiano’s exoneration is hardly the first injustice exposed by the Innocence Project. In fact, the organization has helped to free four New Yorkers in the last year alone. One of them, Jeffrey Mark Deskovic, was convicted of raping and murdering a young woman in Peekskill in 1991. Thanks to DNA evidence, however, he was set free several weeks ago.

Mr. Deskovic’s undeserved prison sentence, which cost him a decade and a half of his life, ought to serve as an object lesson for those who support the death penalty—people like Senator Hillary Clinton and State Attorney General candidate Jeanine Pirro. New York did not have a death-penalty statute at the time of Mr. Deskovic’s conviction; otherwise, he might well have been sent to death row for a crime he didn’t commit.

Attorney Barry Scheck, one of the driving forces behind the Innocence Project, made just that point after Mr. Deskovic’s release. Addressing supporters of the death penalty, Mr. Scheck said, “Please, please, please look at the evidence in front of you.”

That evidence is sobering, indeed. While most felons in New York prisons were correctly convicted, innocent people have also been sent to prison, sometimes for rape and murder. In the past, their protests often went unheard, save by their heartbroken and outraged loved ones.

Now, however, the imprisoned innocents have a formidable, impassioned ally in the Innocence Project. The organization’s work is nothing less than the work of justice itself.