This week’s question comes from Matt G. in San Francisco, who asks:
Q: I’ve been following the 2016 presidential election process, both parties, all candidates. I have heard candidates say protesters at their rallies are trampling on the First Amendment free speech rights of their supporters, who also attend those rallies. Doesn’t the First Amendment also protect an individual’s right to protest?
A: The short answer is yes, it does. Recently, people have misinterpreted the right to politically express themselves however they want as the right to do so without being subjected to anyone who disagrees with them or holds differing opinions. The right to free speech is sacred in this country. But so is the right to protest, one of the significant motivations behind First Amendment protections in the first place.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads as follows: “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.” The important part to remember when it comes to private citizens exercising their right to protest at a rally for a political candidate is the first five words of the Amendment, “Congress shall make no law …”
There must be an overt act on the part of the government attempting to suppress speech for the First Amendment to come in to play. One private citizen disagreeing with the views of another at a political rally does not mean one of those individuals is stomping out the free speech rights of the other. One of them may simply be louder than the other.
The First Amendment protects private citizens’ free speech rights from any act of Congress, from any law that Congress might impose seeking to curtail the rights of speech, of freedom to practice a chosen religion, the right to free assembly. The free speech rights of political candidates — and the supporters who attend rallies for their chosen candidate — are not violated, suppressed or diminished when they are confronted with private citizen protestors who disagree with the views because there is no act of Congress involved.
The candidates are private citizens, their supporters are private citizens and the protestors are private citizens. There is generally no government action involvement except for police providing security for the event.
If, in response to some of the things we have seen occur at political rallies recently, Congress passed a law stating it was now illegal to protest at a political rally involving a presidential candidate, the First Amendment and its protections would come in to play, because the government took affirmative action to limit or prohibit the speech rights of private citizens. The immediate counter-argument would be that Congress violated the express meaning of those first five words of the Amendment: “Congress shall make no law …” abridging the free speech rights of a private citizen by making certain kinds of speech illegal. Private citizens protesting the views or words of a political candidate or other private citizens do not fall within this category.
All candidates must be prepared to defend their positions in the face of peaceful protests.