First Amendment: Protection of Free Speech, Fair Protest, and Religious Freedom
The U.S. First Amendment
Let's get something straight about the 1st Amendment to the U.S. constitution: firstly, it doesn't protect you from every type of speech. There are what we call "time, place, and manner" restrictions. That means that your government has some capacity to restrict speech when it would cause problems for our citizens and friends to go about their regular business.
Also, the 1st Amendment does not contemplate speech that is geared towards violence. The U.S. Supreme Court has clearly established a "fighting words" exemption from free speech rights that basically says, you, citizen, cannot use free speech as a vehicle to incite violence in your fellow human beings. That has ended up being a good thing, as it can prevent hateful speech, sometimes.
All that said, we, as citizens of the U.S. and our friends with a stake in what happens in this country have a right to engage in political dialogue, which includes the right to protest, to assemble lawfully in support of a cause, and to make our political opinions heard.
Streff Legal has been actively involved in representing protesters and others who seek to make their voices heard in our political system. Whether in the criminal or civil context, you have rights. Those activists who wish to make their voices heard should also have a sense of their legal rights and obligation. Contact Streff Legal if you have questions about how to do this.
Civil disobedience is, generally, the conscious decision to break the law in furtherance of advancing a political message. It includes, for instance, the decision to disrupt roads or freeways without a permit to engage in protest. Engaging in civil disobedience is different from free speech in that you would be actively breaking the law.
Those activists seeking to make a point should be aware of the dividing line between speech protected under the First Amendment and civil disobedience, which is not protected. Many U.S. patriots and great thinkers, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Jefferson, and Henry David Thoreau have advocated for civil disobedience. Thomas Jefferson famously said, "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time by the blood of tyrants and patriots."
Dr. King, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, expounded,
"...there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest."
"I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law"
Dr. King's words bring a point forward: there may be consequences to civil disobedience. Those can include jail and fines. We are fortunate in that in our times political speech does not regularly incur long sentences of incarceration. For instances, Streff Legal was heavily involved in recent protests over, for instance, the shooting of Philando Castille. Those protesters were mostly found to have broken the law by impeding traffic on Interstate I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul; however, most of those protesters were not sentenced to jail time over the 3-4 days served at the time of their arrest. Those sentences, though, also included fines and probation for a year requiring that they have no same or similar violations.
Please understand that this does not give a "free pass" to break the law with minimal consequences. Each case can be different.
Please also remember that civil disobedience does not require violence, nor has violence been historically condoned. On the contrary, Dr. King's call to protesters asked, "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" He also asked "are you willing to endure the ordeal of jail?" No better example, perhaps, can be cited in considering non-violent protest, and the prospect of civil disobedience than Dr. King and those noble others who joined him in advancing the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King and his compatriots, in their movement for civil rights as a non-violent protest, stands as one of the proudest traditions political activism of our great country. As a note relevant to our current political protests, Dr. King's march was staged on the U.S. interstate system, on a high-traffic highway, between Selma and Birmingham; however, that particular march on a U.S. interstate was pre-sactioned by a Federal Judge.
Whether to protest or to cross the line to engage in civil disobedience is a decision each activist must make for themselves. Streff Legal cannot advise anyone to engage in illegal activity; however, this firm is committed to helping activists understand the difference and make informed and conscious choices about how to engage in our national and local political discourse.
To emphasize, while Streff Legal cannot advise any person to break the law, our firm strongly encourages any activist who decides to engage in civil disobedience do so in a non-violent manner. Not only will it protect you from much more serious consequences, but it will be better in furtherance of some of the most effective social change leaders in history: Dr. King, Nelson Mandela & F.W. de Clerk, Malala Yousafzai, Benazir Bhutto, Mahatma Gandhi, and others. It is a simple fact that non-violent protest movements have been the most effective in making lasting changes in improving social justice and human rights in the history of our beautiful race of human beings.
Free speech is dependent upon support by the Supreme Court of First Amendment Rights. Please pay attention to Supreme Court decisions, as they are ongoing and impact our free speech and religious freedom rights. Please take a moment to also review Streff Legal's blog post on Citizens United, a uniquely impactful Supreme Court decision on free speech as related to corporate contributions.