When Does Protesting Go Too Far?

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The plan was simple. Once Trump began speaking, Nathaniel Lewis, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, would signal to the group of more than 2,500 others to stand up chanting to disrupt the deliverance. The arrangement would crescendo to thousands locked arm-in-arm around the the podium in eerie silence.

“It will speak louder,” Lewis told Politico, “than anybody who interrupts Trump’s speeches.”

The foreshadow of this deafening protest was perhaps enough to get the message across.

On March 11, just before the rally was scheduled to begin, a Trump official walked on stage to explain that the event had been canceled due to “safety concerns.”

This scenario is one of a familiar ongoing, and sometimes violent, pattern built upon the hysteria of “Dump Trump.” Barely a week later, protestors in Arizona parked sideways on a road leading to a Trump event, blocking traffic for miles. And just last week, Trump protestors turned violent in Cosa Mesta, California, smashing a police car and throwing rocks, bottles, and cans at Trump supporters.

Both parties exercise legal rights to both assembly and speech, but what if the result of one’s freedom to assemble suppresses the freedoms of the another? The trouble isn’t in people taking offense to Trump’s remarks, or even their protests against him. The danger lurks at the delicate line between protest and suppression, which some of these demonstrations are now crossing.

“Our nation is built on being able to say whatever you want, no matter how offensive it is to others,” Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, tells BTRtoday. “Hateful speech is specifically protected by the First Amendment.”

From his proposed ban on Muslim entry into the United States, to his incendiary nicknames for fellow Republican candidates, Trump has set himself far apart from the rest of the presidential field. His political campaign is built almost entirely on braggadocio, combined with a propensity for capturing the media’s attention with outlandish statements that make modern politicians shudder.

The fact is, to some portions of the population, Trump’s speech is hateful–but his right to say it, and for his supporters to hear it, is protected by the Constitution.

“When you shout somebody down, that’s not the exercise of freedom of speech,” Paulson says. “Just imagine your reaction if people on the other side of that issue shut down the conversation. Most people would say that’s just outrageous.”

Beyond the first Amendment, freedom of speech exists as an inalienable right that is only further protected from government intervention within the Amendment. So in a sense, the right preexists the government. The First Amendment merely guarantees the government won’t violate it, in keeping with the purpose of government itself, according to the Declaration of Independence: “to secure these (natural, preexistent) rights.”

“Inalienable” means they can’t be taken away, not even by a democratic, majority vote. And the right to our self-ownership is the source of all natural rights, including freedom of speech.

Of course, the right to assembly is protected by the First Amendment as well. Many anti-Trump participants argue Trump’s speeches fall into the category of harmful. However, speech can only be considered harmful if it facilitates criminal action, such as one person offering another person money to steal something, or yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. In both instances, the speech wouldn’t be illegal if action wasn’t incited.

Hateful speech is most associated with hate crimes, or when somebody commits a crime with a racially biased motive. Some of Trump’s rhetoric has certainly been racially and ethnically biased, specifically his divisive stances on Muslims and Latinos.

Indeed, that’s the argument in favor of protesting Trump to the extreme, suppressing his supporters and stifling his rallies. Who’s to say his words won’t eventually lead to overeager citizens taking it to heart and committing racially motivated crimes against innocent people?

It’s a compelling argument, especially given the high percentage of Americans that view Islam negatively. As it stands, though, statements Trump makes are protected. The arguments made on the contrary are based in false equivalence, and attempts to quell such remarks only leaves the door open for further censorship.

“Our democracy has been successful because it’s built upon the marketplace of ideas,” Paulson says. “Free speech says government may not interfere with my speech or your speech, but it doesn’t protect us against other citizens who are determined to shout louder than we do.”

The problem of speech suppression exists far beyond the world of politics. Paulson himself finds it most dismaying when he sees it on college campuses, particularly when students attempt to bar a controversial speaker from attending a public forum. It’s just as concerning, though, that the phenomenon continues to spread as the United States becomes more partisan in nature and groups realize their ability to tune out or shut down disagreeable discourse.

“The only recourse is to escort people out of an auditorium or arrest them when they block a street,” Paulson says. “That’s all you can do.”

There is only one place where an absolute right to freedom of speech exists and that’s on one’s own property. Under any other circumstances, like in public arenas, freedom of speech is at the discretion of the property owner.

The only limits they have on assembling and protesting is that they do not violently interfere with others, including Trump supporters at the rally. This has not been the case in many Dump Trump protests, in particular the one at University of Illinois at Chicago where things quickly turned violent.

As long as dissenters follow this rule, they aren’t violating anyone’s rights, no matter how many of them show up or how aggressively they protest.

Paulson posits that the rise in speech suppression stems directly from a failure in the American education system to engage in civics, specifically the freedoms of the first amendment. Until that happens, it’s possible Americans will receive their collective education on free speech the hard way.

“Every kid in America knows the pledge of allegiance,” Paulson says. “They should also know the principles of the First Amendment, and they don’t. Unless you incorporate these principles into your school system, you will not have adults that understand the importance and complexity of free speech.”