While the freedom to protest is not mentioned specifically in the First Amendment, the right to voice dissent is a long-standing American tradition, and protest became an officially recognized form of assembly by the US Supreme Court in their 1969 ruling in Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham.
The state of the country in the last few months has underscored the importance of Americans living their First Amendment freedoms. From the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, an unhindered free press has proved vital in publishing information on how Americans can stay safe and healthy. People have also exercised their right to peaceably assemble, with many “Reopen” protests spreading throughout the country in response to state-mandated shutdowns.
The five freedoms of the First Amendment work in concert to empower change. They protect our freedom to believe in new ideas, to vocalize those ideas, to explain or defend those ideas in the press, to assemble in support of those ideas, and to officially petition the government to legislate in favor of those ideas. When embraced simultaneously by enough people, they create a movement.
George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020 has brought about a massive wave of protest against racial injustice, the likes of which were last witnessed half a century ago when cities around the nation erupted in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the past month, Black Lives Matter protests have occurred in every state of the Union, ranging from hundreds of thousands of people in large cities, to single individuals on rural street corners. In fact, this movement has encouraged people around the world to stand in solidarity with Americans seeking to build a more just society, and thousands upon thousands of people have come together in peaceful gatherings, vigils, marches, and speeches to protest racism.
By utilizing internet and social media technologies, Black Lives Matter organizers have reached more people, planned more assemblies, and gathered more signatures than ever before. For instance, in less than a month more than 18 million people have signed the “Justice for George Floyd” petition. Online petitions enable calls for action to reach a wider audience at lightning speed, and, when combined with assembled multitudes demanding change, result in heightened levels of civic and social pressure.
We have witnessed recent infringements on the First Amendment, too. According to the Press Freedom Tracker, there have been over 400 reported incidents of aggression against the press, including denial of access, equipment damage, physical attacks, and 60+ arrests. There have also been clear violations of the freedom to peaceably assemble, with peaceful protesters across the nation having been attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Any time an individual and/or a community is marginalized, silenced, alienated, or excluded, there is a First Amendment issue at stake, because we should all have equal access to our First Amendment rights. Those rights give us a voice to stand against injustice, and they give us the power to change it. They allow us to have dreams for the future of our country, and to turn those dreams into realities.
In the last four weeks, we have witnessed how Americans create change by exercising their First Amendment freedoms. If you are planning on exercising your Constitutional right to peaceably assemble, below are some resources to help you to stay safe from a health perspective, and protected, from a legal perspective:
At the First Amendment Museum, where we inspire people to live their freedoms, we celebrate the fact that so many people have been exercising their rights!
The events of the last few weeks have showcased the power of protest; more specifically, how mass action by the people has brought pressure to bear on individuals, organizations, communities, and local governments to act on events they would have previously down-played or ignored, and to enact changes at a swifter pace than anticipated, both of which reflect a broader cultural shift that demands racial equality and justice.
After the video of George Floyd’s murder is widely circulated on social media, protests begin in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where George Floyd was murdered.
Protests spread to cities across the nation. In Louisville, protestors focus on the recent death of local Breonna Taylor who was shot in her bed by police on March 13.
After a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was torn down by protestors in Richmond, VA, the mayor will introduce an ordinance on July 1 to remove all Confederate statues throughout the city
More than 1,000 current and former professional athletes have signed a letter to Congress calling for the end of qualified immunity, a legal doctrine which shields law enforcement officers from accountability
Iowa GOP Governor to sign executive order restoring felony voting rights, undoing policy that currently restricts more than 60,000 residents, and close to 10% of the state’s African American population from voting