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Protestors have been driving to state capitals to express disagreement with governors’ pandemic-induced stay-at-home executive orders.

Some observe this is a First Amendment right of any or every American. Some who disagree, including certain governors, claim the citizens are out of line or “partisan,” racist, etc., or not with governors’ coronavirus shutdown orders thus ipso facto not worthy of serious consideration. And protestors have used slogans, symbols, and statements including referencing fascism, etc. to make their points, which make for edgy photo ops on the evening news. 

One thing is fairly clear, the longer state shutdowns go, the more the rhetoric is heating up on both or all sides

Protests per se are not the problem, or at least they should not be in this free country, one with a now long history of meaningful protest dating from the colonial period. 

Peaceful assembly and protests are indeed protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and much case law since. It’s when “peaceful” is lost that protests become a problem – unless of course you disagree with the protestors and take a moral high ground condemning their presentation even if peacefully presented.

I’ve written about protest before in what I considered a much-needed Civics 101 lesson. Let’s review:

1—Is protest legal in the US? Yes, in this free country it is, as long as the protest is peaceful or nonviolent, i.e. not harming people, others’ property, impeding people’s progress on public thoroughfares, or otherwise creating a threat to public safety.

2—Do I have to agree with protestors to agree with their freedom to protest? No.

3—Should protestors (or speakers) with whom I disagree be silenced? No, this idea and now increasingly common action is the opposite of the ideal of freedom of speech.

4—If the point of protest is to draw attention to something considered troublesome, isn’t it logical that the more outrageous the protest the more likely it will elicit response? Yes and No. Yes, outrageous is OK as long as it fits within #1. No, in that outrageous may backfire on protestors, eliciting not a response to their views but to their method.

5—Is protest “bad”? No, not really. It is part of what it means to live in a free, pluralistic, and democratic society.

6—Do American citizens have the “right” to protest anywhere, anytime, for any reason? Yes and No. Yes, as long as it fits in #1. No, if it violates #1.

I support Americans’ right to protest peacefully. The key here are the words “right,” meaning this inalienable civil liberty is protected and guaranteed, and “peacefully,” meaning your right to vent or to express your point of view ends when you introduce threats and/or destruction to property or persons.

I do not support, nor think it remotely necessary, people carrying rifles on state government property. I know this is legal. I know they can do this legally if they wish, but I don’t think it helps their cause and might increase the potential for conflict.

I do not think it is necessary or appropriate, and in fact believe it undermines good arguments on the merits, for protestors to carry swastikas or Confederate flags, or other highly emotive, negative, and divisive symbols. Again, is this legal and a part of freedom of expression? Yes. So what’s the problem? In one since, nothing, it’s some protestors’ way of communicating their concerns. In another sense, it invites if not invokes a whole other discussion that may or may not advance their point of view. And please, I know when I say this some will think, This is exactly what we want to convey, pointing out tyranny in contemporary American politics. Others will react to the associations and history these symbols bring to bear. For me, I wouldn’t go there.

Free speech, or more broadly expression, is at work in protests. So what’s the problem with people “calling names”? Nothing. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”…maybe.

Again, for me, while I strongly affirm freedom of speech, I do not endorse or recommend calling presidents, senators or representatives, governors, mayors, or any duly elected or appointed public servant degrading nicknames or using any crude or disgusting vocabulary to describe them. To me, this is juvenile and counterproductive to public discourse. Is it their “right” to speak freely? Yes. Is this sort of approach good for the Body Politic? I don’t think so. 

In a similar vein, some journalists or public officials have called people who choose not to wear a mask in public, “selfish” or “morons” or even the “enemy.” OK, that’s their opinion and they can say this. I don’t go there because I don’t want to label everyone with whom I disagree. I’d rather counter their arguments or points of view on the merits instead of insulting the person. Attacking the person doesn’t leave much room for ongoing debate. We have too much of this on the national level.

Peaceful protests are legal, appropriate, even necessary to the best functioning of a democracy.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2020    

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