The First Amendment: Our Obligation to Protest, Assemble, and Protect the Free Press
The First Amendment states that Congress “shall not 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.” The First Amendment is how we keep our democracy, as dissent can often serve as the highest form of patriotism.
On Tues., March 27, the Saratoga Chapter of the League of Women Voters (LWV) hosted a lecture on the First Amendment. This lecture was part of the three programs sponsored by the League and was given by Justin Harrison of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s legislative department.
The Chapter made sure to tie in recent events, and had three high school students from within the county speak about their own school’s gun violence protests. For instance, on March 14, the National School Walkout took place, and thousands protested against gun violence one month after the tragic events in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and staff were shot to death. Although the students do not go to the same school and have their own separate protests, each of them agreed that it isn’t enough to complain and do nothing. Their generation has grown up with gun shootings and once they turn 18, they will be eligible to vote, but for now, they still have the right to voice their opinions, which often manifests itself in protests.
As a result of the media’s careless normalization of the Trump administration, civil liberties are under attack. Everyone has a duty to speak up against injustice and government policy, but it should be remembered that while the First Amendment protects an individual’s five freedoms —consisting of religion, assembly, speech, free press, and the right to petition the government — it only protects people from the government. The government cannot prohibit people from speaking, but it does have a slightly easier time placing restrictions on when, where, or how to speak.
Protesting is both an expression of free speech and a form of civil disobedience. Part of protesting involves having the willingness to accept the consequences that may come with it. Despite Harrison’s warnings on the consequences of protesting during the lecture, he did provide general rules and guidelines for public protests. Ultimately, public protests should be kept peaceful and be on public property. Protesters should generally be free to say whatever they want, including foul language, which is still protected under free speech, but they should avoid obscene content, inciting the crowd, true threats, touching police officers, or reacting to counter protesters. Any perceived threats against police or public safety could potentially be used against protesters.
Because civil disobedience is considered a violation of the law, however, the police still have the right to arrest protesters. Protesters should remember that they can be arrested and that there are public and private consequences attached to that. Harrison advises protesters to have their IDs and contact information on them, and exclude anything that can be used against them. If the police ask to search an individual’s property, warrants are needed to search a person or to look at their phones. If the police asks for ID, it should be remembered that in New York state, the police can do so if there is reasonable suspicion that an individual has committed a crime. If an individual gets arrested, they have the right to get a lawyer or contact an organization that can refer them to one. If students face disciplinary action for protesting, they have the right to a hearing.
Harrison finished off the lecture with the need to protect the press. The press serves as a driver of discussion, but there are concerns that are made more apparent under the current president’s inclination towards fake news. Under the First Amendment, the government cannot censor fake news as it is still considered free speech. Social media also contributes to the issue. Due to the algorithms set in place, often the news sources people find online align with their personal preferences, search history, and data. To combat this, Harrison recommends supporting real journalism by providing solutions like finding outlets with ethical standards, paying for news, and reading local news. After all, the media serves as a driver for political debate and supporting the media helps drive the debate further.
At the end of this series of lectures hosted by the LWV with the intention of helping further our understanding of democracy, Harrison reminds us that while there are consequences to protesting, it is still part of our First Amendment rights and a crucial part of US democracy. Each lecture on a different political issue reminds us how important it is to protect the rights that we enjoy today.