This week I attended a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Saratoga County entitled “The First Amendment: Our Obligation to Assemble, Protest, and Protect the Free Press.” According to its website, the League of Women Voters is “a nonpartisan political organization, [that] encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy.” The speaker for this event was Justin Harrison, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). It was a surprisingly informal gathering that discussed, in very frank terms, our constitutional rights regarding public protest and our legal rights if we were to be arrested (particularly for civil disobedience).
It was my first time attending a meeting organized by the League of Women Voters of Saratoga Country and from what I understood, it was a very different from the types of meetings that they usually hold. I really enjoyed the meeting because the presentation felt casual and contained very relevant information. I was surprised at the very homogenous makeup of the meeting, I was probably one of 5 people who was around college or high school age, with the vast majority of the group being several decades older and nearly completely comprised of women, despite membership being open to both men and women. It was surprising, and a little disappointing not to see more young people interested in the subject, however, it was insinuated that this meeting was much more rousing than most of their regular meetings. Obviously, recent events have clearly stirred lots of emotions for everyone – no one should feel complacent when children are losing their lives – and the environment of the meeting reflected this.
Justin Harrison was of the opinion that our everyday civil liberties are more threatened today than they have been in over 50 years. Because of this he felt it was important that citizens understand their legal rights for peaceful protest. He began with the basics, such as using public property for protests, understanding that traffic safety laws reign supreme, avoiding physical contact with police officers, and above all remaining peaceful – even when faced with counter-protestors. Additionally, the audience was informed of the limits of free speech, that being defamation, obscenity, true threats, and incitement. The second portion of the forum was focused on how to respond if you were arrested for civil disobedience. First and foremost, we were warned to immediately get a lawyer, however, less obvious were some of his tips such as to write down every detail of the arrest as soon as you are released while it is still fresh in your mind. Additionally, we were warned to never give the police access to personal cell phones unless a separate warrant is issued for a password protected phone.
The evening opened with three students, each from a different high school in the area speaking about their recent actions to organize peaceful protests in response to the Parkland shooting. They spoke about their experiences working with their school’s administration to organize walk outs. This was of particular interest to the NYCLU representative because as we learned, students actually have very few rights if they attend public school. For example, the school has the right to punish students who choose to engage in a walk out. Fortunately, each of the schools in the area worked with their student bodies to come to a mutual agreement. However, it did bring to my attention how not every student can have the assurance that their political actions, even the peaceful ones, carry no negative consequences or punishment. In fact, that was one of the most important points that I heard during the meeting. Harrison stated that sometimes the punishment can be an important part of the message of civil disobedience, and anyone that participates in protests or other types of collective action, must be willing to face the consequences of their actions. The reading for this week, a focus on resistance, coincided effectively with the nature of my political event. Stephan and Chenoweth have been able to demonstrate the greater effectiveness at non-violent resistance to governments. With the understanding that non-violence breeds greater success than violence, the content of this forum was able to foster greater understanding of how regular citizens can peacefully engage without breaking the law. In my opinion, this was an extremely helpful and interesting meeting and I believe more local organizations should promote similar programs to increase education and knowledge. As a non-partisan, pro-democracy group, teaching citizens how to more effectively engage is one of the most powerful things you can do.