In recent weeks, a tragedy has rolled across Baltimore. The death of Freddie Gray left many in our city mourning and unsure how to express their grief. Some reacted with calls for reform, for investigation, and even discipline for the police office involved. The Reverend Jamal Bryant, who spoke at Gray’s funeral, called for peace and justice.
Others responded in a more drastic and angry fashion. After a week of mostly peaceful protests, calls for violence began to circulate. Following the funeral of Mr. Gray, our beautiful city erupted into chaos. Rioters, looters, and arsonists filled our streets. Law enforcement officers were attacked, stores and business destroyed, and the hopes, dreams, and lives of countless people have been shattered. Even our law offices were affected by the rioting, forcing our staff to evacuate after the windows were broken.
This morning, our city is patrolled by National Guardsmen and police forces. A curfew has been enacted. Fires still burn, taxing the resources of our firefighters. Our hearts break along with those who are picking up the pieces after a day in which peace and calm should have ruled. As more and more tragedies of this sort sweep across our country, it is important to let cool heads win out over anger.
The First Amendment provides many rights that relate specifically to situations such as the one in Baltimore. We are guaranteed the right to express ourselves, to assemble peaceably, and to petition the government to right wrongs. Let’s look at what each of these things mean in context of our current tragedy.
Freedom of Expression
Freedom of expression is one of the most fundamental rights we enjoy. We can say or write about our own beliefs and ideas without fear of government censorship. This does not automatically mean that all forms of speech are considered protected. There are several things that are not, and many of them came into play during this tragedy. Obscenities, fighting words, incitement to imminent lawless action, threats, and solicitation to commit crimes are all examples of speech that are not protected. We cannot engage in forms of speech that endanger others, such as calling for riots or planning a crime.
A more productive use of our right to freedom of expression is to write. Start a letter writing campaign. Write blog posts. Write letters to the editor, senators, governors, representatives. Join a grief counseling group or other organization to talk about your feelings and hopes. Encourage others to do the same thing.
Freedom of Assembly
Also known as freedom of association, this means you can choose to come together with whomever you choose to express, promote, pursue, and defend your ideas and beliefs. This includes religious assembly–such as in a church, political assembly–such as a caucus or rally, or any club, organization, or other meeting you might choose to organize or attend. Assemblies can be organized at any place or time without government intervention.
This freedom has a prerequisite. The assembly must be peaceful. If you are walking together in the streets, as long as you remain peaceful, you can’t be stopped by law enforcement or government. Sometimes, governments (municipal or otherwise) will ask you to obtain a permit to make sure that you are following all of the laws, but you don’t need to have permits to assemble peacefully.
If you have issues with something that happens in your city, apply freedom of assembly. Put together a town hall meeting. Meet at a church to pray for peace. Attend caucus meetings so that you can put leaders that you trust, and who will listen to you, into government positions. Attend other meetings where policy is discussed and implements so that you can make your voice heard.
In addition to assemblies, protests are protected by this freedom, as long as they remain peaceful. The first week after Freddie Gray’s death, citizens of Baltimore assembled peacefully outside the city offices and other locations throughout the city. You can organize rally, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement. Organize a parade. A great example of this is the Pride Parades that occur across the country. You can put together a picket or other sort of demonstration. Take a page from Mahatma Ghandi’s book and organize a sit in.
Freedom of Petition
Freedom of petition allows you to send a list of your grievances to the government and ask them to make changes accordingly. You may have seen websites such as change.org that allow people to create petitions. There is even a website to petition the White House directly, at petitions.whitehouse.gov. You are free to collect support for your petition from others who share your goals and beliefs. In addition to creating petitions, you can lobby your government officials. You can also ask for the courts to make changes to laws by filing lawsuits. In the case of Freddie Gray, a lawsuit against the police and city government might have enacted change.
We Must Be Better
At Ingerman & Horrowitz, we share the burdens of the citizens of Baltimore. We are part of the communities here. We make our homes here. We call upon all of our community to act with compassion and peace. Practice the freedoms guaranteed to us by our own government in respectful and powerful ways. We stand with you.