The clashes between the OWS protesters and the power-that-be remind me of other moments in our nation’s history when groups of disaffected patriots expressed disapproval of the status quo. In each instance the government– though unable to eradicate the First Amendment altogether– sought ways to stifle it. Sometimes the right to dissent was restrained legislatively on the federal level– for example, the Sedition Act of 1798, which outlawed “writing, printing, uttering, or publishing” anything against the government or the president–other times it was done through municipal regulations, such as prohibiting tents in parks.
In almost every incident, the government sought to forbid citizen opposition by restricting where protesters can protest, gather, and/or picket; by labeling non-conformists as unpatriotic, anti-American, and even an enemy; or simply by claiming that public disagreement with the government poses a threat to national security and therefore must be clamped for the betterment of all. Below are only three examples, but there are many more.
-Ever concerned with his popularity, President Lyndon Johnson signed a law banning protests on Capitol Hill. This lead to the arrests of individuals who had gather to peacefully read the names of soldiers who had died in Vietnam. (The law was subsequently held unconstitutional).
-Women’s Strike for Peace was one of many anti-Vietnam war groups during that era. When they announced an upcoming rally in front of the White House, the Department of the Interior stated that no more than one hundred persons could picket in front of the White House gate at a time. WSP dismissed the rule, picketed anyway, pushed the police line and trampled the fence.
-In a move that drew eerie parallels to Macarthysm, Attorney General Ashcroft under the Bush Administration authorized the FBI to enter and attend events open to the public with the expressed purpose of gathering information and monitoring political and religious activities, without any proof that unlawful conduct was present.
When the country is in a state of fear and unrest, the temptation to suppress the civil rights of individuals are exacerbated in the name of maintaining order and nationalism. As author/journalist Geoffry Stone states: “Laws punishing dissent are especially appealing to public officials in wartime because they are relatively inexpensive, cater to the public’s witch-hunt mentality, create the illusion of a decisive action, burden only those who already are viewed with contempt, and enable public officials to silence their critics in the guise of serving the national interest.” But ultimately, the onus is on the people to uphold their rights. “Citizens in a self-governing society are responsible for their own actions and those of their government.”