In the the First Amendment, U.S. citizens are guaranteed the right to “peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” These rights grant citizens a way to participate in the political process and hold the government accountable for its actions.
These constitutional rights have been exercised extensively as of late in the form of marches and protests across the country. The Women’s March saw a record number of people turn out to protest the new executive office and its proposed legislation; protests against the new immigration restrictions were organized and enacted incredibly quickly. As technology and communication improves, protests are growing larger and are being organized more quickly and efficiently than ever before–and law enforcement is paying attention.
As the number of protests rise, so do the numbers of arrests at protests. Last November, over 100 people were arrested for blocking a McDonald’s entrance at a “Fight for Fifteen” protest in Kansas City. Several activists who oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline have been arrested over the last several months.
At the recent Day Without Immigrants protest in Kansas City, three protesters were arrested. The first arrest of the day was for a protester blocking the street. The ticket issued to this person stated that his offense was that he had “no horn signalling device” and he “did fail to comply by not leaving the area after being told to do so, honking horn inciting a crowd to gather after being told not to use horn.” All three people who were arrested were Latino, and one is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, who will now have to defend himself in court and risk losing his legal status.
Of course, protesters getting arrested is nothing new. During the Civil Rights Movement, peaceful protesters who complied with the law were arrested in record numbers. If anything, these arrests worked as publicity for the movement, and brought the protests to national attention.
As these protests and the resulting arrests become more prevalent, we have to wonder, what do our first amendment rights mean anymore? What does it mean that someone can be arrested for honking their horn to show solidarity at a public venue? What are the limits on our freedoms of speech, to petition, to assemble peaceably? Increasingly, it seems that rights are limited when powerful bodies disagree with the actions and rights being exercised.
These limits extend beyond arrests and legal action. In response to several allegations of racism and misconduct on its campus, University of Missouri students held several protests on its Columbia campus in the fall of 2015. At a protest in November, protesters forcibly prevented a member of the press from photographing their “tent city,” which was outdoors on public property, and which students had hailed as a Safe Space.
“We ask for no media in the parameters so the place where people live, fellowship, and sleep can be protected from twisted insincere narratives,” a Twitter account associated with the activists later stated.
In this scenario, the freedom of the press, a civil right guaranteed by the constitution, was restricted in a public place.
These students, of course, were under no obligation to speak to or cooperate with the press. Taxpayers do not pay their salary, and there were other opportunities for the press to cover the story. It was still, though, a limit imposed on a right in a public space.
However, the event did raise questions about the limits of freedom of the press and speech, especially as it applies to safe spaces. The story switched from coverage of these protests for racial equality to a debate about the first amendment.
The events I’ve described are obviously very different, and there are several nuances with both scenarios that I did not get into in this article. However, both deal with a limiting of first amendment rights on public property.
With the advance of smartphones and social media, we are now able to see how first amendment rights are being infringed upon and limited. It seems, especially in recent months, that any time someone with the ability to limit the first amendment rights of someone with whom they disagree, they will do so. Currently, many are questioning the effectiveness of our system of checks and balances, which means that citizens’ protest may be the last “check” at our disposal. It is certainly the one that individuals have the most control over. This being the case, we should all be aware and be very afraid when our freedoms are being limited, both by law enforcement and by other citizens.