Thursday, January 19, 2017

Is Civil Disobedience a Defense to Criminal Charges?

With everything in the news these days, there's been a lot of talk about "civil disobedience", free speech, the right to protest, and the 1st Amendment.  Before you get yourself arrested, please take a moment to read this article.  Make sure that you understand your rights and, more importantly, the limits of those rights.  Then call my office.

The 1st Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the right to free speech.  The government may (almost) never punish you simply for expressing an unpopular opinion.  The content of your speech is virtually sacrosanct under American law, no matter how offensive.  In this country, you are free to deny the holocaust or to make racially offensive slurs.  You might lose friends or even your job, but the state  may not sanction you for saying stupid things. 

The time, place and manner of your speech is another story, though.  The government may constitutionally restrict when, where and how you express yourself, as long as they have a good reason to do so.  The police may not arrest you simply for yelling, "F*ck the police!", but they absolutely may arrest you if you scream it repeatedly late at night in a residential area (or if you torch a police car, block an intersection, disrupt traffic, damage property, etc., even if those actions are political speech).

So turn out, protest, make signs, and yell whatever you want.  But please don't block the freeway or light anything on fire.

If you choose to engage in some civil disobedience, be advised that "civil disobedience" is not a defense to criminal charges.  The term "civil disobedience" was coined in the middle of the 19th Century by Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau had served a night in jail for refusing to pay a tax, in protest of the Mexican-American War.  He was a staunch opponent of the war and of slavery.  In his famous essay, Thoreau argued that men have a moral responsibility to resist unjust enactments, and to break the law if necessary.  He also emphasized, though, that they must be willing to accept the consequences of their unlawful behavior.  Thoreau willingly served his time in jail and he never argued for lenience or claimed that his actions were protected by the 1st Amendment.

If you or a loved one has questions about civil disobedience or the 1st Amendment, call us for a free attorney consultation. (714) 449-3335.  Ask for John.

Thanks for reading.