Our very first Amendment, the first real change to the U.S. Constitution that was drafted to protect the liberties outlined in our nation’s founding document, is currently under attack. The president of the United States, along with many legislators, leaders, and media personalities regularly engage in a characterization of protesters that goes against the established law that protects and preserves this fundamental right that defines freedom.
Let’s start with the First Amendment. It’s very simple. It reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The second part of this – the right to assemble and petition the government – is one of the most fundamental rights in a free society. It ensures that we have the right to question what our government is doing, the right to join with others to combine our voices with calls to change policies and laws, even the Constitution itself. It gives us the right to address our elected officials and say “this must change.”
This freedom has been tested throughout our history. In the 1830s, Congress was frequently petitioned for the abolition of slavery, to the point where the House in 1840 declared that it would no longer receive any petitions regarding abolition. It took 5 years for this House measure to be repealed. During World War 1, petitions against recruitment, sedition laws, and espionage practices lead to imprisonment. Yet, all of the tests have failed to upend this fundamental aspect of freedom.
Now, our own government is calling those who assemble “terrorists.” And this is something the Supreme Court says they cannot do. In DeJonge v. Oregon (299 U.S. 353, 364, 365 (1937)) the Court determined that “The holding of meetings for peaceable political action cannot be proscribed. Those who assist in the conduct of such meetings cannot be branded as criminals on that score.” Yet here in 2020, our government officials regularly refer to assemblies as acts of looting and rioting, calling the participants terrorists and anarchists. Federal agents are detaining protesters without due process in an effort to intimidate those with grievances and create a general fear of assembling in public.
Now I must stop address the crowd yelling “those protests are not peaceful!” That is the media those folks are mimicking. News and media outlets rely on attracting readers. They will look for the sensational, the extraordinary, the rare, and tell the story in the way that attracts the most attention to their publication. However, for every looter, rioter, and perpetrator of a violent act in all the protests and marches throughout our nation, there are hundreds, if not thousands of peaceful citizens gathered for the purpose of voicing their opinion. Characterizing every protester as a looter or rioter is as inaccurate calling all policemen murderers, as characterizing every Republican politician as an Evangelical fanatic or every Democrat as a Godless liberal. Even just grouping the words “protestors”, “rioters”, and “looters”, in a sentence or headline creates the illusion that the people who engage in these acts are of equal number when in fact those who are not acting peacefully are the minority in these gatherings. Furthermore, some instigators have been recently discovered to be opposing parties who are intentionally sabotaging peaceful assemblies by acting as if they belong to the petitioning group and starting chaos in order to change public opinion about these peaceful groups.
I do, however, agree that the government has the duty to help control the riots, the looting, and the violence. But that duty is guided by law and must be done in a way that does not deny anyone the right to assembly and petition. The Court is once again clear on this. In Hague v. CIO (307 U.S. 496 (1939)), the court recognized the government’s duty to “regulate” public assemblies, but it determined that the act of regulating “must be exercised in subordination to the general comfort and convenience, and in consonance with peace and good order; but [The Right to Assembly] must not, in the guise of regulation, be abridged or denied.”
There are many social divides in our nation right now. We can argue 365 days of the year and not cover everything worth a disagreement. We can disagree on gun control, abortion, minority rights, immigration, wealth distribution, health care…the list seems endless.
But protecting our First Amendment, our right to address our government with those issues we want changed or protected is quite literally the most important right we have. Without it, none of those other issues can even be debated.