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Protests Spotlight First Amendment Right to Peaceable Assembly

By Adway Wadekar

With public health concerns increasing over the COVID-19 pandemic and racial tensions escalating after the killing of George Floyd, the First Amendment has been brought into the spotlight.

The First Amendment affords five rights, but with recent events the one that has been called into question the most is the right to peaceably assemble.

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Demonstrations held across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd have energized old and young, Black and White, but President Trump has not supported these gatherings.

The president took to Twitter to denounce protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in Minneapolis, New York City, and Seattle. All occurred in a largely peaceful manner.

Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), worries that while protests in support of the BLM movement have gained momentum, the president doesn’t have an understanding of the right for people to assemble peacefully.

“President Trump has throughout the course of his presidency shown, to put it bluntly, a misunderstanding of what the First Amendment is and what it does,” Silverman said.

Ahead of his own campaign rally in Tulsa, Trump tweeted, “Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!”, suggesting that protesting will be met with a police or governmental response.

At the president’s campaign event in Tulsa, a woman who had booked a ticket in advance, was arrested at the request of the Trump campaign after kneeling down to pray when she passed through the barrier at TOK Arena.

Stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders have become increasingly common in many states across the nation starting in March and while most people complied, some took to the streets. President Trump supported their efforts on Twitter with messages such as “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA.”

President Trump is not the only one being selective about which protests to support. In past months, the majority of public health officials have advocated for social distancing and against large gatherings of even extended family members. Most voiced their concern about the public protests to “reopen”. But now, many support protesting to fight for racial equality.

One such person is Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. Nuzzo was in support of social distancing policies in April when she wrote an article in JSTOR Daily.

But in a tweet she wrote later, she said, “We should always evaluate the risks and benefits of efforts to control the virus. In this moment the public health risks of not protesting to demand an end to systemic racism greatly exceed the harms of the virus.” .

NEFAC’s Silverman explained that he would like to see reasonable safety precautions being taken, but whether it’s a political rally by the president or a protest in the streets by the BLM, the right to protest should be protected, he said.

Created By
Adway Wadekar
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