Permitted Demonstration Laws

I was a part of a conversation last night that got me thinking about things. Particularly about civil and constitutional rights related to demonstrations.

Here’s the background; I’m a member of the Omaha Atheists. Recently some of the members of the group, with some external help with funding I believe, were successful in getting a billboard in town supporting a related group, the Omaha Coalition of Reason.

Omaha Coalition of Reason Billboard
The Omaha Coalition of Reason Billboard is up at 72nd and Pacific in Omaha, NE as of 7/5/2012 Photo Credit: William Newman

So a big group of the membership decided to go take a group photo in front of the billboard. One organizer, in expressing concerns that some people may not want to be identified in a picture, was stressing that we should get as many people as possible so as to make individual identification difficult. I understand that there are quite a few of our members that have these issues due to work or family and fear the potential backlash. I don’t fit into that description, but I can respect that others aren’t ready to “come out” as an atheist due to the sometimes harsh (or even violent) repercussions it might have. I find no fault with the “closet atheists” really, though I wish they would lend their support for the sake of everyone that struggles with the issue. (But that’s a topic for another post.)

Another aspect of the conversation was concerns that we not have any signs or anything like that as we would have more than 25 people and don’t have a permit to demonstrate. I reacted before I thought and basically brushed the concern aside. I realize now that that was a mistake born of projecting my own feelings and opinions about permitted demonstration laws. I was basically saying “Pffft, whatever. If I’m going to get arrested for demonstrating, whether I am or not, fine. No one needs a permit, and no one can be forced to sign one if they don’t claim to be an organizer.” Her response was “Well, that’s the law and this is obviously organized so…” And all due respect to this person, I was not trying to belittle her or make light of her concerns. They are valid.

In reflecting on that today, it struck me why I feel the way I do. I ask myself; At what point do we reach the line? At what point do we decide “F#ck that, I’m an American. I have a constitutionally guaranteed right to be somewhere on public property regardless of the fact that there are 24 other people there.”?

If an officer is going to arrest me for demonstrating without a permit, fine. Arrest me. I consider it an honor. And while in my younger and more idealistic years I was very anti-authoritarian, I don’t think I’ve altered my basic view on this issue (unlike almost every other opinion I have!)

For instance; I once was very libertarian in my viewpoints on things like drug laws. I still think they need to be repealed, and my basic view is the same, but I don’t take the view that this is 100% a conspiracy by drug companies, paper companies, beer companies etc. Now I see it as the basic truth that society as whole (however ill-informed) decided to regulate these things by majority vote and so they (really, we) did so. And we have a right to. So I’m not all fired up and militant that demonstration permit laws are completely a tool of a fascist external regime designed to oppress the masses and stamp out dissent (though this may be true to a degree, or at least a fringe benefit).

So in a bit of self-evaluation I find myself pondering what the rational and justified reasons could be behind such laws. The simple answers don’t satisfy me; It’s so that a bunch of people can’t just decide to bully the public or private entities by just ganging up on them and calling it their right to free speech. Or it’s so that we don’t have mass permanent encampments of people in the public space, basically loitering. Or it’s so that every one has fair access to the public space and not just one voice of a dominant majority can make theirs the only voice heard.

The reason that these answers don’t satisfy me is that all of these things are addressed by existing law. Loitering, littering, blocking a public through-way, bullying, assault etc are all already dealt with in existing law. There’s no need for a special law to address these activities.

And the reasons I’m opposed to such laws? Myriad! For one, As stated in the very first amendment to the US Constitution: “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.” (I find it almost ironic that this came about due to a conversation among atheists concerned about getting into legal trouble for an un-permitted demonstration, seeing that the establishment clause is also a part of the First Amendment.) If I have a Constitutional Right to something, I do not have to get a permit to exercise that right. Think about the word permit; to allow. The root of the word permission. Americans do not need to ask the government for permission to assemble. Period.

This is also something that context does not change. Unlike the view of many people on the second amendment; “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”, where the context of what a militia is, what arms are and what arms can do have all changed. The nature of people assembling has not changed. The context is the same; the power of the government (in other words, the people) cannot be used to silence dissent, squash assemblies of people, etc.

This is the same view I’ve always had, first developed in the late 80’s over the controversial flag-burning laws. My take on that set of laws is identical; If we allow the government to decide when, where and how we are permitted to demonstrate then we have no right to do so. We have only their permission. I understand the emotions it might stir up for combat veterans and others who’ve sworn an oath to defend the flag and the rights and freedoms it stands for. But their emotions about the issue are the very reason these rights must be protected. Paradoxical, maybe. But if I own it and can’t burn it then I don’t have a right I was guaranteed and so the object, the symbol, of this conversation is meaningless, is it not? “You can’t burn the flag because it’s a symbol of your rights and freedoms to burn a flag,”… this is truly paradoxical.

So, what are the justified reasons for such a blatantly unconstitutional law?