First Amendment rights affect our lives everyday. Our right to the freedom of expression is becoming increasingly prevalent in the 21st century. The recent increase in awareness around crime involving conflict between the public and government officials is creating widespread tension. Consequently, the line between legal and rational reactions and illegal and irrational responses is blurred. Perhaps if the public was a bit more educated regarding their rights—rights guaranteed them by the First Amendment—such problems and tension could be avoided.
In 2015, the Baltimore Police arrested a man named Freddie Grey for allegedly carrying an illegal switchblade. While being transported, Grey fell into a coma. He was taken to a trauma center, where he passed away shortly thereafter.
Assessments showed that injuries to Grey’s spinal cord triggered the coma. Accounts from multiple eyewitnesses to his stop and arrest suggest that police used excessive force when taking Grey into custody. Further investigation suggested that his rough transport was to blame for his condition.
News of Grey’s passing sparked public outrage—radical protestors looted, burned multiple local businesses, and threw stones and bricks. These riots resulted in 34 arrests and 15 injured police officers. The situation became so bad that a curfew was even placed on the city.
Baltimore’s reaction to the death of Freddie Grey is just one example of a national problem. Serious damage can be done when reactions are not thought through carefully. I firmly believe that when educated about their rights, the public can approach such situations with other, more rational reactions.
Consider a second example also from 2015—the death of Madison’s own 19-year-old Tony Robinson at the hands of a police officer. Following this incident, anger and hatred flooded the streets. However, in contrast to those in Baltimore after Grey’s death, protesters of police violence in Madison lined the streets to march for hours. They also held a mock trial in front of the Dane County Courthouse and blocked the entrance to the Dane County Jail.
The march took place for hours—until the police force announced that anyone who refused to get out of the street would be arrested. This resulted in two dozen arrests. There were no injuries and no deaths resulting from this peaceful protesting.
Huge differences are evident in the way protesters chose to mobilize in Baltimore versus Madison. In the eye of the law, more rational reactions are going to be perceived better.
The First Amendment grants American citizens the rights to express themselves freely and to assemble. Recent protests around use of police force have no doubt called into question notions of what it means to express oneself and what it means to assemble. Just how far can a protestor go under the guise of the First Amendment? And to what degree—if any—is the government accountable for interpreting the rights guaranteed to citizens under the First Amendment?
Protests over the use of police force will likely not see an end anytime soon. The political climate across the nation is increasingly heated. Whether you side with police forces, protestors, or find yourself somewhere in the middle, one thing is clear: the First Amendment is taking on new meaning in this age and its implications are more crucial than ever.