Protest is how we talk to ourselves as a nation — but violence isn’t protest

First Five by the Freedom Forum Institute

Jan 7, 2021


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This column expresses the views of Gene Policinski, senior fellow for the First Amendment, Freedom Forum.

Assembling to protest is our right under the First Amendment — it’s how we talk to each other as a nation.

Sometimes politely. But often not. Occasionally at the top of our lungs. Frequently with brutally frank messages. And often in ways that spark counterprotests.

Just as the nation’s founders intended — and it is still a good thing that we do.

What happened Wednesday when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol was not a protest protected by the First Amendment. It was a criminal act. A stain upon the fabric of democracy.

Freedom of speech and press, as well as to assemble and to petition for change, provide the real means to speak to each other across the nation’s deepest divides. Those freedoms are the way we give voice to those who feel ignored by the powerful.

One aspect of those freedoms is to provide a kind of national safety valve for the normal frustrations built into democracy — where elections and legislative decisions by their very nature are a form of majority rule until the next election.

We have been doing a lot of talking lately. Mostly peaceably. But when mobs replace protest with chaos, it betrays the core principles on which the United States was founded and the role it has played for more than two centuries as a worldwide beacon of freedom and the rule of law. There is no First Amendment shield for violence, no matter the motive.

Yes, we are intently discussing and debating some of the most important challenges that the nation faces, from Black Lives Matter protests over racial bias and racial dignity, to COVID-19 demonstrations for and against pandemic health restrictions. Waiting in the wings are the demonstrations, marches and protests over ongoing issues such as abortion, gun laws and voting rights. The venues will range from the web to public meetings to city sidewalks and rural byways and, yes, the steps of the Capitol.

As differing as the subjects, points of view and mediums may be across 330 million citizens, there are some fundamental facts for all to acknowledge — and in the wake of Wednesday’s violence, reaffirm:

  • A democracy is only as strong as those willing to exercise their freedoms in the service of a better nation;
  • We sometimes must hear voices and messages that challenge our fundamental beliefs, if only to be better prepared to defend our own positions.

To be sure, there is no provision in the First Amendment’s 45 words for universal agreement or quick solutions to what ails the republic. The First Amendment is a constitutional starting point, not a finish line.

The very real tension of the First Amendment’s promise to produce positive change is this: Sometimes it doesn’t. The pace of change is often too slow for advocates and too fast for opponents. Perhaps that’s why assembly and petition lag behind the other First Amendment freedoms in public understanding. But as many as a third of our fellow citizens have trouble even naming one of the First Amendment freedoms (which also include religion, speech and press).

While we tend today to choose speech as the most important freedom among those five, petition was the keystone for many of our nation’s founders. Protecting the right to speak the truth as each of us sees it, they reasoned, would protect the other four freedoms in law and democracy in practice.

If we want our ideas to be heard, we must encourage the rights of our opponents to speak also. We must disavow those on the right and left who would demonize dissent, discourage debate or deny a platform for all to be heard. And we must resist resorting to violence when conversation lags or fails to produce the results we seek.

Our nation’s history shows us that when we talk to each other, and when we listen, we are making progress at solving problems, correcting wrongs and admittedly, often imperfectly, making better the lives of ourselves and our fellow citizens.

That applies whether we are gathering in the nation’s capital city over election results or in our hometowns where we are free to publicly express views on everyday matters like school policies or streets that need to be paved.

Those difficult conversations are worth having, despite the frustrations. Those contrary views are worth expressing, peaceably, no matter the tensions of the moment.

And those rights are worth preserving, no matter our divisions — and no matter the actions of a mob.

Gene Policinski is a senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum. He can be reached at, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.