You Have (No) Right to Peaceably Assemble

“Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.” Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

The first amendment to the Constitution of these United States of America recognizes five rights (or freedoms) – those being the freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, of assembly and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. An original draft of the first amendment read “nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed” and was to be two different amendments. Sadly, throughout the history of this nation, these rights have been infringed and violated. The Sedition Act (passed in 1798 as part of the Alien & Sedition Acts) made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” critical of Congress and/or of the President, but criticism of the Vice-President was not crime. The Sedition Act had an expiration date of March 3, 1801 (the day before Adams’ presidential term was to end). The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which amended it, imposed restrictions on the free press during wartime. It carried fines of $10,000 and up to 20 years imprisonment for people publishing “…disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States.”

While these laws are no longer on the books, peaceful protesters are still being arrested. The Nieman Foundation for Journalism reports that since 2009 nearly 1,400 people have been arrested during peaceful anti-war protests. Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and associate legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, says, “although we haven’t recently had the gigantic demonstrations of those Vietnam War years, in my experience, what you have today is a lot of smaller, passionate and persistent activities going on all over the country. A lot of peaceful protests and civil disobedience. The mainstream press doesn’t cover that.”

While this report only covers the last 2 years, it would be interesting to see statistics for arrests during the Bush presidency. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee reported in 2003 that “the FBI has been collecting information on antiwar demonstrators. Its October 15, 2003, memo asks local law enforcement to report ‘potentially illegal acts’ to the nearest Joint Terrorism Task Force. The FBI’s listing of what constitutes suspicious behavior shows how broad ‘domestic terrorism’ may become: rehearsing for demonstrations, raising money via the Internet, and acquiring gas masks in case tear gas is used. Police in some cities may consider the mere act of demonstrating against a war to be suspicious activity that warrants additional investigation by counterterrorism forces.” Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union says, “The FBI is dangerously targeting Americans who are engaged in nothing more than lawful protest and dissent. The line between terrorism and legitimate civil disobedience is blurred.”

While the Constitution was supposedly put in place to protect our rights, it has failed. As Lysander Spooner once wrote, “the Constitution… has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.”