There have been questions recently about demonstrations and protests scheduled for this weekend in Murfreesboro. Questions such as, “why should ‘they’ be allowed to do that?” or, “why are ‘they’ be allowed to be here?” This is not the first time protests and demonstrations have concerned a community. Previous court decisions have interpreted First Amendment law concerning this issue and this is briefly discussed below.
To begin with, we are all aware the First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the freedom of speech and expression. The First Amendment says: "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.” So, what does this mean? Can you say whatever you choose whenever you choose? No. There are limitations on free speech.
Previous court decisions have held the right to free speech is dependent, or contingent, upon the power of the government to survive. In other words, the government must be able to protect itself against unlawful conduct and against incitements to commit unlawful acts. The United States Supreme Court case of Cox v. New Hampshire, from 1941, gave an explanation of a limitation on free speech. The Court said that “[c]ivil liberties, as guaranteed by the Constitution, imply the existence of an organized society maintaining public order without which liberty itself would be lost in the excesses of unrestrained abuses.” In other words, the government must be able to protect itself and citizens from the abuses of free speech. This explains why the government continues to be involved in demonstrations and protests, provides “assistance” in facilitating demonstrations and protests and why it is necessary for law enforcement to remain involved.
Along the same lines is the limitation of speech that presents what is referred to as a “clear and present danger.” Previous Court decisions have held that the government may only cut off free speech when the speech threatens to “ripen” conduct against which the public has a right to protect itself. In other words, if the speech poses a clear and present danger, threatening immediate harm or danger, the speech is not protected under the First Amendment.
Freedom of speech cuts both ways. While you often get to say what you want, you may also hear what you do not want. This is the benefit/cost of the protections under the First Amendment.
Say a prayer for our law enforcement officers and their families protecting our community this weekend.