Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. – First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, 1791.
Americans’ rights to free speech and to assemble are enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Thank you, James Madison and the first United States Congress, but what exactly does it mean?
The short answer is that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects individual rights, specifically the right to freedom of speech and assembly, as well as the press and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. But these rights are not absolute, especially when they are used maliciously.
There are, however, some forms of speech that are not given protections and those have been adjudicated all the way up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court generally identifies these categories as obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, fighting words, true threats, speech integral to criminal conduct and child pornography.
So, free speech does have its limitations, but in many instances, just where they are is murky.
For instance, we know that we can’t yell “fire” in a crowded space. Or use words to threaten, defraud or entrap people. But what about hate speech and lying? Both are technically protected speech, but they are not healthy for society or democracy. It is true that words can wield tremendous power, so we must be careful to ensure that our words are used to their highest and best use.
The right to assemble is also guaranteed and has been on display in Northeast Harbor recently. Over the last many weeks, area residents have gathered outside the home of prominent lawyer and legal activist Leonard Leo to express their views on issues in which they believe him to be involved. Leo most notably has worked to shape the nation’s court system with a pro-Federalist Society bent. And, politics aside, he has been quite successful. So successful, in fact, that the courts have changed, and a recent Supreme Court decision reversing a near 50-year precedent on abortion rights was made possible shortly after the appointment of three conservative judges that were widely believed to have been on a short list provided by Leo.
Those protesting outside of Mr. Leo’s home say they are upset with the direction he is helping to take the country in and that his beliefs don’t mirror those of Mainers as a whole. They not only want to share that displeasure with him, but they also want to make sure others on Mount Desert Island are aware of him too.
Mr. Leo probably wishes he lived farther off the road because what the protesters are doing is protected under the First Amendment and there is no telling how long they will camp out there.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the right to protest is strongest on streets and sidewalks and in front of government buildings, providing protesters don’t obstruct car or pedestrian traffic.
Both parties – Leo and the protesters – have called the police department to ask about their rights and the department is working to make sure that all rights are protected. It is not an easy task, but we appreciate the effort they are taking.
The rights we are afforded under the Constitution and its accompanying Bill of Rights unite us as Americans, but we should strive to be respectful to one another regardless of our personal points of view. Freedom is for everyone and should be enjoyed equally.