The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution 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.” For many Americans this is a Right to hold near and dear as injustices are recognized and citizens feel the need to express their opinions and differences to have changes made or to get justice.
Your freedom of speech can extend from being able to express an opinion in the checkout line of the grocery store to joining like-minded individuals on a corner in the county seat to express displeasure at a government policy or decision. It is your RIGHT to disagree or agree and say so plainly and loudly.
But, over the years – particularly in the deep south during the 1960’s Civil Rights movement and elsewhere – prevailing authorities have often hampered, blocked or eliminated the rights of American’s to exercise their right to free speech. Free speech is not available equally to all, and this was not the intention of the First Amendment. It comes in many forms. When the authorities believe differently than the dissenters, there is the temptation to suppress those who disagree using their power and “authority.”
One way occurs when law enforcement declares a peaceful assembly to be an “unlawful assembly” and disperses the crowd or arrests the participants. Not only does this deny their speech, but there can be other long-term consequences.
The same can be true with civil disobedience. Civil disobedience was used by Martin Luther King, Jr. during his quest for civil rights. But, it was Mahatma Gandhi who originally promoted its use in his quests for equality. As the name implies, civil disobedience is non-violently disobeying a legitimate rule or law by blocking traffic, inhabiting a public or private space, or marching in a fashion that causes disorder. In this case, participants fully expect to be arrested to draw attention to their point or plight. But, when one is arrested for an act of civil disobedience, a political gesture, it goes on their record. So, when those same people apply for a job, that record can be used against them to deny them employment. Fair or not fair?
From the other side, because of the recent Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, the flood gates have been opened for political action committees (PACS) and corporations to use their large bank accounts to advertise, hire lobbyists, make political contributions to make their “statement” and get what they want, which is often more favorable tax treatment, fewer consumer protections (regulations) or advantages that are often counter productive to average citizens and consumers. The ability to overpower any opposition by buying more air time side steps the ordinary man’s ability to be heard, many believe. And, to be heard so widely and forcibly, is done without any consequence that the “little” man risks.
So there does exist inequality for freedom of speech, especially when the ordinary citizens’ protest can easily and arbitarily declared unlawful or illegal.
In the recent cases of demonstrations around Ferguson, the police departments have met the “chance” of a peaceful protest turning violent by preempting it with a militarized force – complete with tanks, snipers on roofs, tear gas, firing rubber bullets at protesters, smoke bombs and more. First, the use of chemical weapons and police beating sticks on the ground as they advance a group of Americans is abhorrent. This is something we would feel comfortable seeing in a dictatorship or a totalitarian country, but not America.
“There is a reason we separate the military and the police. One fights the enemy of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people." This is a quote from Commander William Adama, a fictional character from Battlestar Galactica. It is interesting that sometimes fiction helps us better understand what is happening around us. The point is, that our local police do see many of their constituents as the enemy and not someone who is voicing a belief under their First Amendment rights. Their disrespect for Constitutional rights should never take precedence over their personal beliefs. This is the lesson our municipalities, our police departments, and our states must re-learn if we are to have a better and active democracy.
Here's how Robert Reich characterizes the impact of civil disobedience and the right of free speech:
"One of my former students who's been looking for a job told me employers wouldn't consider her because of her arrest record.
'What arrest record?' I asked.
'I was arrested three years ago, during the Occupy demonstrations,' she said.
'Because you demonstrated?'
'Yes. They charged me with inciting a riot. All I was doing was sitting on the campus, holding a sign. But they put me and a dozen others in jail because we wouldn't move,' she said. 'And now I can't get a job.'
I'm going to help her try to expunge her arrest record. But her story made me think about the chilling effect such arrests have had on millions of students who are facing or about to face a difficult job market. Since then, many have been afraid to demonstrate -- to exercise their First Amendment rights -- for fear of not getting a job.
The Supreme Court has given corporations untrammeled power under the First Amendment to spend whatever they wish on politics - thereby pushing corporate campaign spending to unprecedented heights. But the First Amendment rights of students and others to have their voices heard have been trampled upon. The asymmetry of power has not been worse in living memory.
A SHORT HISTORY OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE IN AMERICA
The Boston Tea Party was one of the most famous acts of civil disobedience in American history. Susan B. Anthony was arrested for illegally voting in the United States House of Representatives elections, 1872 in order to protest female disenfranchisement.
It was arguably during the abolitionist movement that civil disobedience first defined itself. Henry Thoreau refused to pay federal taxes in protest of both slavery and the Mexican War; this action directly inspired the "Civil Disobedience" essay. Numerous more militant actions, such as the Christiana incident led by William Parker were taken in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act. In spite of the violence of the actions, juries often refused to convict the defendants.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, James Bevel, Rosa Parks, and other activists in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s used civil disobedience techniques. Among the most notable civil disobedience events in the U.S. occurred when Rosa Parks refused to move on the bus when a white man tried to take her seat. Although 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had done the same thing nine months earlier, Parks' action led directly to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A more common act of civil disobedience (in opposition to Jim Crow laws) during the Civil Rights Movement would be a "colored" person (i.e. an African American) sitting at a "white only" lunch counter. In addition, other Civil Rights movements of the era include the Sit-in movements of 1958 and '60, the 1961 Freedom Rides, the 1963 Birmingham campaign, the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement and the 1966 Chicago Open Housing Movement. These forms of civil disobedience were effective in promoting the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Open Housing Act of 1968.
Anti-Vietnam War activism brought one of the largest waves of civil disobedience in US history. Approximately 34,000 young men burned their draft cards or turned them in to the government. Dozens of protesters, such as Daniel Berrigan and the Catonsville Nine, broke into draft boards, seized draft records, and destroyed them to dramatize their protest against the war. Other major manifestations were the Chicago 1968 protests, and the 1970 student strike. Disobedience spread to the armed forces with some facing courts marshall for openly refusing to fight. Tens of thousands deserted from the military, going to Canada or to Western Europe. By 1972, army disobedience was widespread, with 50 out of 142 GIs in one company refusing to go out on patrol.
In the wake of the Vietnam and civil rights struggles, civil disobedience became a major part of other social movements of the era, such as the American Indian Movement, with the Alcatraz Island and Wounded Knee Occupation; and the gay liberation (LGBT) movement which was launched with the Stonewall riots.
Since the 1970s, pro-life or anti-abortion groups have practiced civil disobedience against the U.S. government over the issue of legalized abortion. The broader American public has a long history of subverting unconstitutional governance, from the Whiskey Rebellion to the War on Drugs. However, the extent to which simple violation of sumptuary laws represents true civil disobedience aimed at legal and/or social reform varies widely.
American interest in theoretical discussions of civil disobedience was also sparked by the Nuremberg trials, the security and loyalty controversies of the 1950s, and the pre-arms control years of nuclear power. The 2000s (decade) have seen some libertarian civil disobedience by Free State Project participants and others.
In 2010, Arizonans were planning to protest Arizona SB 1070 by not carrying their identification papers. Also that year, five protestors pleaded guilty to trespassing after they sat in the chairs of the Greensboro, North Carolina city council during a recess, banged the gavel, and denounced a subculture of police corruption.
In August and September 2011, 1253 demonstrators organized by environmentalist Bill McKibben and the group Tar Sands Action were arrested for sitting on the sidewalk in front of the White House over the course of two weeks. The group, including environmentalists like Phil Radford, celebrities like Daryl Hannah, indigenous and religious leaders, students, and landowners faced arrest to express opposition to the proposed Keystone Pipeline extension (Keystone XL) permit which would bring Oil Sands from Alberta, Canada to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. The White House was chosen as a site of action because of President Barack Obama's role in the decision.