Introduction: “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” — Frederick Douglass: First Amendment & the Importance of Protest
By Raya El-Hajjar, age 13
Did you know there is no legal age for exercising your First Amendment rights? Additionally, there are no citizenship requirements—anyone in the United States can exercise their right to free speech, assembly, press or petition.
Throughout history, people have exercised their right to free assembly to help change and shape the world we live in. “[By protesting,] people realize that they are not alone,” writes Richard Norman, professor at the University of Kent, at opendemocracy.net.
Protests have been a regular occurrence in the face of injustice. The March on Washington in 1963 is widely credited with helping pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement has increased by 20% since 2016 after mass demonstrations. “Protests work because they direct attention toward an injustice and change people’s minds,” writes Zeynep Tufekci in The Atlantic.
Currently, certain lawmakers have begun attempts to thwart free assembly all over the United States. So far, there have been over 90 anti-protest bills proposed that would undermine the right to protest. Although it is unconstitutional to inhibit free speech, people interpret First Amendment rights differently.
Protesting is a way of making your voice heard, a way to build community with people like you, a way of showing power in numbers. “[Protesting is] a slow, but profoundly powerful process,” Zeynep Tufekci wrote. Protesting’s sister rights (free speech, free press, free petition) are receiving well-deserved attention, but it is essential that free assembly is not eradicated.
The United States has always upheld protesting as a fundamental freedom, setting it apart from other countries where free assembly is not a guaranteed right. Like Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
A Wave of Anti-Protest Laws Around the U.S.
By Zahra Latheef, age 11
After the police murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, protests erupted across the United States decrying racial injustice. Around the country, some Republican-controlled state legislatures began taking steps to stop these protests and started to pass anti-protest bills.
The bills are designed to target riots; however, “riot” is defined as a gathering of three or more people that threatens public safety. Republican lawmakers in 34 states have introduced over 100 anti-riot bills since the beginning of 2021.
Oklahoma, Florida and Iowa passed bills which grant immunity for unintentionally killing or injuring protesters while trying to flee a riot. According to the new laws, blocking a public street or highway during a protest is considered a wrongdoing, the punishment for which consists of a year in jail or a fine of up to $5,000.
Republican state Sen. David Osmek of Minnesota also introduced legislation this year which would make those convicted of any crime associated with protesting—including breaking curfew—ineligible for state government assistance. This would include food stamps, student loans, unemployment benefits and healthcare.
Critics of these bills say the laws restrict the protesters’ rights and they will unequally harm those who choose to protest. They also argued that people of color will be disproportionately affected by these bills. “In this state, it is oftentimes the marginalized voices that aren’t heard,” said Joshua Harris-Till, president of Young Democrats of America, in March to Public Radio Tulsa. For this reason, people of color are at the forefront of these protests.
According to Matthew Delmont, a history professor at Dartmouth College, these anti-protest bills influence the democracy of the United States as they take away the people’s right to protest. “The reason so many protests exist in the first place … is that they are trying to change things about our society and our political system that are fundamentally broken,” said Delmont in an interview with NBC News. He explains that these laws are an attempt to “restrict who can participate in democracy.”
Laws that attempt to punish people for exercising their right to protest violate the most basic and fundamental rights of Americans. As Moné Holder, senior director of advocacy and programs for Florida Rising, said to the New York Times, “It’s a tactic to silence our voices.”
The Florida Anti-Riot Bill Conflict
By Oscar Tomasello, age 12
This April an anti-riot bill was signed into law in Florida by Gov. Ron DeSantis, apparently in an effort to stop violent protests in the state. DeSantis and Florida’s top Republicans cited the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 as a reason why this anti-riot bill was necessary, despite the fact that only a reported 7% of those protests turned violent. In Florida, there has been controversy regarding whether the bill should be upheld.
The anti-riot bill will lengthen prison sentences by up to 15 years for those who partake in riots. The bill expands the definition of a riot and makes it somewhat unclear what is and is not legal under the law. DeSantis called the law the “strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement measure in the country.”
Critics of the bill say that it is “excessive and vague,” according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal. It will limit the people’s right to freely express themselves, but only for some groups, specifically organizations advocating for immigrants’ rights or other racial and social justice issues. This is partially evident due to the fact that DeSantis did not mention the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 during his speech introducing the new bill.
In an attempt to stop violence on the streets of Florida, the anti-riot bill has sparked a battle over what civil rights we as citizens of the United States truly hold. Soon after the ceremonial signing of the anti-riot bill, the Lawyers Matter Task Force, a nonprofit organization, and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against DeSantis and the new anti-riot bill. The plaintiffs explained that the bill was seeking “to arrest the peaceful expression of free speech.” The bill is a “horrendous injustice to Florida citizens and infringes on multiple constitutional rights,” according to Shannon Ligon, founder of the Lawyers Matter Task Force.
“The fact that people would now be afraid to go out and protest is another way of attacking your First Amendment right,” explained civil rights attorney Melba Pearson to the New York Times. “This means people are going to be less likely to exercise that right due to fear of excessive government action.”
Protests Banned At the Olympics
By Arnay Agarwal, age 12
After being postponed for a year because of COVID-19, the Summer Olympics are happening in Tokyo beginning July 23. But the pandemic isn’t the only new adjustment for the athletes. New guidelines issued last year by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have upheld Rule 50 guidelines of the Olympic Charter to ban specific protests on the Olympic field and podium.
Rule 50 in the IOC Charter states, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
As per the IOC Athletes’ Commission, Rule 50 intends to stop political protests from occurring on the Olympic field and podium so that athletes can focus on their performance. The commission also states that Rule 50 respects athletes’ celebration, but not in a political, religious or ethnic demonstration, and that the Olympics’ focus has to be on the athletes’ performance, the sports and the unity and harmony between athletes.
The IOC consulted with over 3,500 athletes regarding the Rule 50 guidelines and found that a majority of athletes are in favor of keeping the podium, venue and games free of political protests.
Critics say that Rule 50 denies the long political history of the Olympics and how many athletes over the years have used the podium and field as a stand against injustice and to spread word about corruption in their respective communities. Athletes who violate Rule 50 will undergo disciplinary action, which will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Protests at Olympic events are nothing new. With the world watching, it is inevitable that some athletes choose to take a political stand while on the podium. One of the most iconic moments was when Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two Black sprinters from the United States, raised their fists in a Black power demonstration at the Mexico Olympics in 1968. Both of the athletes were sent home after the event.
Some athletes, like Megan Rapinoe, a former Olympic soccer player, state that Rule 50 focuses on the protests but not what the protests represent. She wrote on her Instagram following the announcement of the new guidelines, “So much is being done about the protests. So little being done about what we are protesting about. We will not be silenced.”