The 1st Amendment is pretty cut and dried. Its in plain English, easily understandable, and doesn’t use too many multi-syllabic words. Most of us learned it in grade school:
“Congress shall 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.”
Allow me to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment. Do you see the word “protest” in the above paragraph? How about “demonstrate”? Neither do I. Are we potentially being assumptive when we presume that “protest” is covered under “peaceable assembly”? A case can be made that we are.
Should you and ten of your friends gather in a public park to hand out leaflets, you aren’t required to get permission from the government in the form of a permit to do so. You are free to stand on the steps of your State Capitol, holding a sign. However, if you organize 100 of your friends to stand on those same steps and hold signs with you, permission from the government in the form of a permit is required, and that permission is frequently, and arbitrarily denied.
When an activity requires government permission to engage in, it can’t be called a “right”. That’s the very definition of a privilege. The government doesn’t grant rights. One of it’s few and limited duties is to protect them.
We also have the fact that the government can not only deny your request to protest, if they happen to grant you the permit, they can then dictate the time, place and manner of the protest. “Free Speech Zones” are commonly set up at political events in order to control dissenting speech, and keep it sequestered from the main event.
All of this begs the question. Is protesting a right, and permit requirements are unconstitutional? Or is protesting beyond the realm of peaceable assembly, and a privilege granted by the government?
As a reminder, this commentary plays Devil’s Advocate. I’m a staunch supporter of peaceable assembly and firmly believe that protesting, when done right and in a non-violent manner, has a significant impact on legislation. This was evidenced by the massive success of the TEA Party protests resulting in historic wins for the GOP in 2010 and the Open Carry protests in TX, resulting in sweeping legislative changes in carry laws in that State.
But…is it a right? Or are we using the word “right” too loosely in this case, given the required, governmental permissions needed?