Protests at the governor’s residence: free speech or civil disobedience?
May 4, 2020
Flickr Creative Commons image can be found at Lorie Shaull.
Protesters are exhibiting free speech
Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are fundamental pillars of our democracy.
Last Saturday, about 250 protestors gathered outside of Governor Walz’s residence in St. Paul to protest the current stay at home order. Very few worse masks. Fewer engaged in the Center for Disease Control’s recommended 6 foot social distance. Some even sneered at nurses and doctors who protested against the crowds on behalf of the state’s medical institutions. These were bad mistakes and the protest’s message was significantly clouded and devalued by them. Yet while many Minnesotans rightfully disagree with protestors’ message, to suggest that their efforts should not have been tolerated is to go against the 1st Amendment rights of speech and assembly.
Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are fundamental pillars of our democracy. They prohibit the government from censorship and allow the people to both voice their opinions and maintain transparency and fairness in the world of politics.
Critics of the recent protest argued that the protestors were disobeying Governor Walz’s stay at home order, but no government order should be allowed to restrict our 1st Amendment rights. While it does seem like a misjudgement to simply ignore CDC recommended social distancing and use of masks, all of the 250 protestors last Saturday knew what they were getting into. By attending the protest, the protestors arguably acknowledged the risks in attending and subsequently made a conscious decision that their right to make their beliefs heard outweighed their personal risk from the COVID-19 disease.
Nurses and doctors attended the protest as well. Some marched defiantly through the crowds of protestors. Others simply stood with their arms folded towards the crowd. These images of nurses and doctors standing up to the protestors are further examples of the power of free speech. The nurses and doctors, who did seem to engage in social distancing and were wearing masks, weighed their risks as well and decided that it was more important to assemble and send a message to the protestors with whom they strongly disagreed.
This action showcases the power that speech and assembly give us as well. Speech and assembly have the power to change minds. Two notions of the current COVID-19 crisis clashed in the protest – and this clash likely resulted in two parties walking away more aware and perhaps empathetic to the other side’s beliefs.
For some, the economic struggles that COVID-19 has brought weigh more heavily on their personal lives than the threat of contracting the disease. For others, the threat to loved ones, friends and even strangers weighs more heavily. Neither view is right or wrong – they are simply two different reactions to a communal and crisis. Free speech and the freedom to assemble (preferably if done safely and respectfully) simply help these two sides communicate, empathize with each other, and most importantly learn how to tackle their differences and work together towards a global solution.
Protesters are disobeying civil order
Ideas about liberty should be informed first by the danger, and potential lethality, of assembly.
The recent rallies held across the U.S., including last Saturday’s outside Governor Tim Waltz’s residence, revealed a collective dissatisfaction with “stay at home” orders and a desire for things to “go back to normal.” Though many of the protester’s sentiments are valid, any form of assembly ultimately poses a public health hazard, even if it may be a “right.”
This trend of disregarding looming, yet unseen, viruses repeats itself through history. During the flu pandemic of 1918, a group of populists and civil libertarians in San Francisco protested the health order to wear surgical-type cloth masks to help stop the virus’ spread. The anti-mask group succeeded in removing the order, yet the city ultimately became the hardest hit in the United States: 45,000 people fell ill, and more than 3,000 died out of a population of 500,000. A public health expert at the time, Dr. William C. Hassler, remarked presciently after the defeat of the masking ordinance that “The dollar sign is exalted above the health sign.” Jumping to the present, job loss and the economy should rightly be a focus of attention for
Americans—surveys find that half of U.S. households have lost income due to the pandemic situation—yet it is unwise to downplay the science of the virus’ spread in the hope of regaining normalcy.
Protesters send the message that the right of assembly is paramount right, even in pandemic situations. However, these first-amendment arguments rest on the condition that such assembly can be made peaceably and without the physical harm to others. Covid-19 spreads through people that may not show obvious symptoms. Thus, any assembly, on top of disobeying the governor’s stay at home order, poses a physical threat to the public. In other words, ideas about liberty should be informed first by the danger, and potential lethality, of assembly.
While protesters gained a wide media following, their pushback represents a small minority of American attitudes towards the virus. According to a recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, 73% of voters say Americans should “continue social distancing for as long as it is needed, even if it means continued damage to the economy.” Only 15% of respondents held the opposing view: that Americans should “stop social distancing to stimulate the economy, even if it means increasing the spread of coronavirus.” Another survey, conducted between April 17 and April 19, found that 60 percent of the public opposes anti-lockdown protests, while 22 percent support them.
Protesting is a democratic right, as all Americans can agree on, yet it has been encouraged by President Trump in an undemocratic way. One of the catalysts to the protest outside Gov. Waltz’s home was Trump’s tweet to “Liberate Minnesota.” This use of language allows Trump to scapegoat Waltz for being “too restrictive,” while disregarding the reality of the virus’ continued threat towards public health. Gov. Waltz is merely following Trump’s order to lead the local response, and Trump’s provocation of citizen dismay is only a tool to blame the local rather than the national response.
Ultimately, protesters cannot enact any real change—as the opening of Minnesota’s economy depends instead on projected models of the virus and data on deaths and ICU cases. In this case, public health takes priority over the dollar sign.