The nation is on edge as hundreds of thousands of people are protesting the deaths of black men at the hands of police officers. Tens of thousands of people have been marching and protesting nonviolently here in Atlanta.
Now, the question the media has been asking is how long this will be allowed.
But since free speech is a constitutional right, why does anyone believe that protesters need permission?
Let’s give it a Reality Check.
“I ask the protesters, you may continue to protest— not you may, it’s your right to— but please continue to do so in a peaceful fashion.”
Glad that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed corrected himself there so that we don’t have to.
Protest is a right and does not require permission.
But at his briefing on Monday, Mayor Reed also indicated that the city might institute a curfew to crack down on protesters after 5 consecutive nights of protests. Tonight, we’re going to take a look at three arguments against these protests.
The first argument is that these protesters are inciting hate. The claim that you can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater, therefore protesters who are shouting in the faces of police officers— do they have the right to do so?
That argument doesn’t hold water. That’s because the “fire in a crowded theater” argument is a paraphrase of a paragraph in a 1919 U.S. Supreme Court written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. It is often cited as justification for limiting free speech, but this is what Holmes actually wrote:
“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic … The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.”
To be clear, violence has not been committed against police officers her in Atlanta, nor are these protests calling for violence. They are calling for change.
The second criticism: what about the need for a permit?
In Atlanta, protesters are required to have a permit. According to the city, an assembly must have only two of the following three criteria:
- Has greater than seventy-four people
- Travels for greater than two blocks
- Moving portion lasts for greater than one hour
If those things happen, you’re required to have a permit. When it comes to these protests, all three of those criteria would be met, so where is the permit? The truth is, requiring permits for assemblies is unconstitutional.
The First Amendment guarantees the right to assemble, the right to free speech and the right to demand a redress of grievances. The First Amendment does not include a requirement for a permit; that is the creation of municipalities.
Which leads us to our third issue: that protesters are breaking the law.
And they are. Walking on the streets, attempting to shut down the interstate— yes, these protesters are, in fact, breaking the law.
But what you need to know is that nonviolent protest through civil disobedience was the center of the original civil rights movement, a movement itself that was centered here in Atlanta.
During the civil rights era, African-Americans marching in the streets at that time were also breaking the law. When protesters refused to move to the back of the bus, or sat in a “whites only” restaurant, they were breaking the law.
When protesters tried to march across the Edmund Pettus bridge on Bloody Sunday, they were refusing to obey the orders of law enforcement.
Protest often requires civil disobedience that does not injure or harm but that certainly does create disruption. Because it recognizes one very important fact: not every law is lawful.
That’s Reality Check. Let’s talk about it on Twitter.