A Peaceful? Protest
Now that Time Magazine has made The Protester “The Person of the Year”, I have been giving a lot of thought to the First Amendment Rights to peaceable assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. We hear a lot about our constitutional rights, what we don’t hear a lot about is our responsibilities in exercising those rights.
There are many ways to petition our government officials. We can write or email them. We can gather signatures on a petition. We can call them and we can vote. We can even gather in large numbers in a show of unity to call attention to an issue. That is what is meant by the right to peaceably assemble.
A peaceful assembly respects the rights of those not participating to go about their daily lives and does not try to impede them by blocking streets, sidewalks, or the entrances to buildings. A peaceful assembly does not destroy public or private property. People do not commit crimes against one another during a peaceful assembly. A peaceful assembly respects the rules of usage for public parks and open spaces. A peaceful assembly respects the rights of others to use public parks and open spaces and does not occupy them for an unreasonable amount of time.
When the purpose of a gathering is to call attention to its cause by being willfully disruptive or destructive, when it causes an inconvenience to those not participating by obstructing their access to places were they have a right to be, then the gathering is no longer a peaceful assembly. It is an act of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is an unlawful act and is not protected under the constitution.
To understand the difference between the two acts we need to understand why we have this right.
The Constitution was written by men who had a healthy mistrust of government. They wanted to limit the government’s intrusion into our daily lives. The First Amendment spells out some specific rights that allow us to maintain control of the government and the individuals elected to serve us. Not all countries enjoy this kind of freedom. In places such as China, and Middle Eastern theocracies, the people have no other choice but to engage in civil disobedience in order to confront the injustices their governments force them to endure. But because our constitution gives us lawful and civilized ways to keep our government accountable to us, an act of civil disobedience is not only unnecessary it is counter productive.
When a gathering becomes a disruptive nuisance to a community there will inevitable be someone who seeks to remedy the situation and prevent future problems by suggesting regulation. It seems reasonable enough, lets protect the public by restricting, how many may gather for a rally, where they can gather, how long they can gather. Before long political correctness takes over and along with protecting public safety, the government decides that it should protect us from being “offended” as well. Now along with the restrictions already in place comes a restriction on who can gather. Now you have to submit your agenda to code compliance to make sure it does not encourage disruptive behavior. See how this goes?
We all have a right to have our grievances heard, but we should also be good neighbors and citizens. The First Amendment was not meant to allow an “anything goes” approach to addressing our concerns. When we abuse our rights, we set in motion the means to erode them.