River Cities’ Reader
• Vol. 19 No. 798 • February 16-29, 2012
Business • Politics • Arts • Culture • Now You Know • RiverCitiesReader.com
Has the First AmendmentBecome an Exercise in Futility?
by John W. Whitehead email@example.com
iving in a representative democracy suchas ours means that each person has theright to stand outside the halls of govern-ment and express his or her opinion on mattersof state without fear of arrest. That’s what theFirst Amendment is all about.It gives every American the right to “petitionthe government for a redress of grievances.”It ensures, as Adam Newton and Ronald K.L.Collins report for the Five Freedoms Project,“that our leaders hear, even if they don’t listento, the electorate. Though public officials may be indifferent, contrary, or silent participantsin democratic discourse, at least the FirstAmendment commands their audience.”As Newton and Collins elaborate:“‘Petitioning’ has come to signify any nonviolent, legal means of encouraging ordisapproving government action, whetherdirected to the judicial, executive, or legislativebranch. Lobbying, letter-writing, e-mailcampaigns, testifying before tribunals, filinglawsuits, supporting referenda, collectingsignatures for ballot initiatives, peacefulprotests, and picketing: All public articulationof issues, complaints, and interests designedto spur government action qualifies under thepetition clause, even if the activities partake of other First Amendment freedoms.”Unfortunately, through a series of carefully crafted legislative steps, our governmentofficials – both elected and appointed – havemanaged to disembowel this fundamentalfreedom, rendering it with little moremeaning than the right to file a lawsuitagainst government officials. In the process,government officials have succeeded ininsulating themselves from their constituents,making it increasingly difficult for averageAmericans to make themselves seen or heardby those who most need to hear what “we thepeople” have to say.Indeed, while lobbyists mill in and out of the homes and offices of members of Congress,the American people are kept at a distancethrough free-speech zones, electronic town-hallmeetings, and security barriers. And thosewho dare to breach the gap – even throughsilent forms of protest – are arrested for makingtheir voices heard. The case of Harold Hodgeis a particularly telling illustration of the way the political elite in America have shelteredthemselves from all correspondence andcriticism.On a snowy morning on January 24, 2011,Hodge walked to the plaza in front of the U.S.Supreme Court building with a sign aroundhis neck. The three-by-two-foot placardread: “The U.S. Gov. allows police to illegally murder and brutalize African Americans andHispanic people.” Hodge, a 45-year-old AfricanAmerican, stood silently at attention in frontof the building displaying his message. Thereweren’t many passersby, and he wasn’t blockinganyone’s way. However, after a few minutes,Hodge was approached by a police officerfor the Supreme Court. The officer informedHodge that he was violating a law prohibitingexpressive activity in and around the SupremeCourt building and asked him to leave.According to federal law (U.S. Code 40U.S.C. § 6135), “It is unlawful to parade, stand,or move in processions or assemblages in theSupreme Court Building or grounds, or todisplay in the Building and grounds a flag,banner, or device designed or adapted to bringinto public notice a party, organization, ormovement.” The penalty for violating this lawis a fine of up to $5,000 and/or up to 60 daysin jail.Hodge, steadfast in his commitment topeaceably exercise his right to assemble andpetition his government, politely refused. Overthe course of some 35 minutes, several morepolice officers gathered and began to slowly circle Hodge. After ordering Hodge two moretimes to disperse, the officers placed Hodgeunder arrest, handcuffing his hands behind hisback and leading him to a holding cell withinthe Supreme Court building.Hodge is not the only person to be arrestedfor demonstrating in front of the SupremeCourt building. Recently, 14 anti-death-penalty demonstrators were arrested for unfurling abanner on the Supreme Court steps. In October2011, Cornel West, the Princeton University philosopher and activist, was arrested on thesteps of the Supreme Court while protesting theinfluence of corporate money on the politicalprocess. In January 2008, 34 demonstratorsprotesting the indefinite detention of inmatesat Guantanamo Bay were arrested fordemonstrating outside the Supreme Court. D.C.Superior Court Judge Wendell P. Gardner Jr.stated that most of those demonstrators wouldbe sentenced to probation, but that he wouldperhaps jail those who had prior convictions forcivil disobedience so that they would stop doing“the same thing over and over.”This desire to insulate government officialsfrom those exercising their First Amendmentrights stems from an elitist mindset that viewsthem as different, set apart somehow, from thepeople they have been appointed to serve andrepresent. It is nothing new.The law under which Harold Hodge wasprosecuted was enacted by Congress in 1949.Since then, interactions with politicians have
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