Your right to protest

FB_IMG_1713869916254 We citizens of comfortable liberal western democracies tend to believe that we have a "right to protest"1. But as someone who doesn't really like rights-based language I have different views, and feel the urge to write them down to general acclaim. Examples of the kind of thing I mean are Mass arrests made as US campus protests over Gaza spread; or back in Blightly, Extinction Rebellion: Seventy arrested at climate change protests.

Right to protest isn't the same as Freedom of speech, of course. The clue is that the words are different. If you're USAnian your freedom of speech is strongly protected from govt interference, and extends to things not obviously speech, such as burning flags. But only if you own the flag in question; burning someone else's flag is criminal damage. It extends to the inverse, no-forced-speech, which again extends to things not traditionally speech, such as not having to make cakes in support of causes you don't like. It makes sense to say things like I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It.

However, that doesn't transfer across into a right to get in the way of law-abiding citizens going about their law-abiding business2, no matter how passionately you feel about whatever it is you feel about. This is where thought is often replaced by emotive and disingenuous language. Preventing LACGATLB is non-non-violent, and pretending otherwise is lying.

How this all works out in practice is another matter. Laws don't prescribe exact behaviour and we don't want them to. There's always a certain amount of grey area in how far you can get away with getting in other people's way before people become sick of it. Govts, of course, are often the target of protests and so are often keen to crack down; at least in England the general mass of the population is fairly easy-going; but if the protesters are annoying enough the general public sentiment gives govt their excuse to pass more restrictions, and everyone loses. Protesters such as XR recklessly abusing the system are bad.


1. No-one in places like Russia or China believes that, or at least not for very long.

2. And a "right to protest" that didn't get in other people's way would just be a "right to go about your own lawful business" (see comments) which you have anyway and which doesn't need to rise to the level of a separate "right".


My Beautiful Bubble - Caplan.
Armed Men on Campus! - Pierre Lemieux


Tom said...

Largely agree, but with modifications: I think the right to protest does and should exist, but that it does not extend to interfering with normal exercise of activities of others. You can wave signs in the park and chant slogans--you can't glue yourself to a road or chain yourself to a door.

Tom said...

And shouldn't that cartoon be accompanied by Sinatra singing 'High Hopes?'

Tom said...


William M. Connolley said...

Hmm, and they say modern music is poor.

I'm not sure what a "right" to protest means when so constrained. As a common-law rule-of-thumb it seems reasonable, but I'm not sure it survives scrutiny. "protest, but don't interfere with others" just becomes "go about your activities but don't interfere with others"; why does it need a special right to protect it?

Nathan said...

Doesn't matter whether it's a right or not. It works and people will do it.
It's one of the few ways that real change happens.
From civil rights to land rights to ending bad forestry practices.
From the end of British rule in the US, to the right to vote... All start with civil disobedience.

William M. Connolley said...

If its "civil disobedience" then that's wrapping "breaking the law" in soft words; but it means that you no longer have legal or constitutional protection for your acts. The govt remains bound to follow the law in dealing with you of course, but for example solutions such as dragging you away and putting you in jail become legal. And your defence is not the law, but public opinion. It is a soft form of rebellion, effectively. In which case, per Hobbes, it is "permissible" if you have a reasonable chance of winning.

Nathan said...

"The govt remains bound to follow the law in dealing with you of course..."

I don't think the Govt is bound to follow the law.

But as I said earlier, this is a tactic that can work - and frequently does, especially in democracies.