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Civil Discourse and Petitioning

Debating matters of public concern is essential in a free, self-governing society. If citizens were not free to decide after listening to opposing views self-government would be distorted. At the core of the Declaration of Independence is the principle that government exists to protect individual rights for us, not that we exist to serve the government. Therefore the people are the master and the government is the servant. If the government can dictate what we can and cannot discuss, then it would imply that the servant can tell the master what to do.

We can see this logic of self-government in the First Amendment of the Constitution. The second half of it says that Congress can make no law “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.” Those rights are often considered in isolation and as distinct guarantees. But they really build upon one another and reinforce the fact that the people are sovereign and possess the right by nature to control the government. If, for example, you disagree with a government policy and want the government to change it, you would first speak to others. To let as many people know as possible about your concerns, you would broadcast your position through the press and invite others to assemble with you to discuss the problem with you. After deciding on a course of action, you would petition the government to address your concerns.

But these rights also entail duties, most importantly civility towards those with whom you disagree.

Civility is certainly the prudent posture. After all, if you are not civil toward your opponents, then why would they be civil toward you? But the obligation is grounded in something deeper and more fundamental than just prudence or self-interest. Your rights to speak, broadcast, assemble, and petition require that you respect the right of others to do the same. That means that when we engage with other citizens there is an obligation to do so with an appropriate level of civility. If we do not let others speak, then really we are attempting to impose our views on others. It becomes a kind of despotism where we seek to silence rather than engage. The Constitution, thus, forbids the “heckler’s veto” where angry thugs shout down those with whom they disagree with. The Supreme Court has, in fact, ruled that speech cannot be banned “simply because it might offend a hostile mob.”

If a hostile mob could justify suppressing speech, then free speech would be threatened. Whenever someone opposed the speech of another, they could simply threaten violence and have it suppressed.

While we have a duty to tolerate the speech of others, toleration should not be defined to mean approval, which is what some alleged defenders of toleration often do. If toleration requires approval, then it is not toleration at all. And defining toleration to require approval actually undermines the basis for toleration. For example, when someone expresses an opinion that you agree with, no one says that you are being tolerant by allowing them to speak. Toleration requires accepting the right of others to express their disapproval of your beliefs and actions. Doing this runs against some of our most basic inclinations.

Alexis de Tocqueville identified a powerful desire for uniformity in democracies which extends even to what we think: “In America,” he notes, “the majority draws a formidable circle around thought” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835).

Thus to preserve freedom of thought and discussion we need to inculcate particular habits, particularly toleration rightly understood, which allow for real intellectual disagreement.

Civil rights

Civil Rights demonstrators petitioning for equality.

The Civil Rights Movement showed that self-government, embodied by the right to speak, broadcast, assemble, and petition also requires that citizens possess the virtue of courage.

C.S. Lewis said that “courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality”(C.S. Lewis, The Screwtop Letters, 1942).

Speaking out against an unjust but popular law exposes citizens to ridicule, contempt, and even danger. But a free society needs citizens who will expose themselves to those risks and doing so requires courage. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement risked their freedom and their lives to protest the injustices of Jim Crow laws and segregation. Without their courage those injustices would never have received the attention required to compel national action.

The Civil Rights Movement also points to an often misunderstood component of political action, civil disobedience. Men such as Martin Luther King, Jr. violated unjust laws but willingly accepted the punishment that came with violating the law. That is true civil disobedience. Unfortunately civil disobedience is often confused with simply violating laws that you do not like. Civil disobedience demands accepting the punishment otherwise there would be no principled distinction between civil disobedience and mere lawlessness. Someone, for instance, could claim that they opposed excessively high prices for Coca-Cola and steal a two-liter as a sign of their displeasure. But if they did not willingly accept the punishment for stealing, we would have no way of knowing if they really believed that prices were unjustly high or if they just wanted a free drink. Hence, when the media report that eco-terrorists engaged in an act of civil disobedience by burning down a new development but also say that the perpetrators have not been caught, they are confusing two things. Perhaps these arsonists are really just pyromaniacs and are using an alleged love of the environment to justify their destructive behavior.

Finally, we need to distinguish between the Founders’ understanding of petition and today’s.

For the Founders, petitioning was something that you did to government. Because government has the power to punish you, it wields the most important power. Private institutions, such as businesses, do not possess attributes of sovereignty and there is a much simpler way to protest their actions -do not patronize them. If, for example, you do not like Chick-fil-A’s stance on same-sex marriage, a controversial political issue, you are free to not eat there. Or if you object to the fact that Starbucks does not want customers to bring guns into their stores you do not have to purchase their drinks. But following your principles can be costly. If Chick-fil-A and Starbucks do not accept your demands then you have to choose between your principles and tasty sandwiches and well-caffeinated beverages.

This last example points to the importance of consistency. Too often we think there should be no conflict between our preferences and our principles: we demand that no one who makes sandwiches we like should have opinions with which we disagree. But if we really believe in the principles such of freedom of speech, press, assembly, and petition and the logic of self-government that follows from them, then we have to accept the right of those with whom we disagree to express their disagreement.

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