I was talking to a couple of parents today and was amazed at what I heard. Their child had been punished at school for signing a petition protesting a homework assignment they felt was belittling. The issue is not whether the assignment was belittling (I thought it was based on the description I received) nor is it whether or not the Parents agreed to the detention (they thought it was alright) but instead it was how these folks had forgotten everything we learned about freedom of expression when we were in school. That Lawyer Dude is a child of the late 60’s early 70’s and I do not particularly miss the period. I was as conservative as I am now… which is to say very, but I do not remember ever thinking that peaceful protest should be punished.
I was actually impressed that the students in the case above had sought out a positive expression of their frustration and in some cases anger. The petition as I understand it was not abusive or vindictive. Rather it seemed to be a forthright expression of disgust with the assignment and with the teacher that gave it. Yes it was strongly worded, but not impolite or impertinent. By acquiescing to the principal’s decision to punish the children, I think that the parents herein abdicated their duty to teach their children that they have a right to proper expression.
Now surely there is something else being taught in this school. That the authority is always right and that all forms of protest will not be tolerated. I always thought that part of learning to be a good citizen included questioning authority in a proper manner. I cannot think of a more appropriate manner than a petition to request that the authority change its behavior. Nevertheless there is another lesson for the protester (even the morally right and peaceful one) and that is that the ruling power will usually seek to make its life easier by putting down lawful protest and will succeed until other voices rise up to stop it. Hence protest can bring on consequences so it is imperative to weigh the issues and pick a battle that is critical or crucial and not protest for protests sake.
It is significant that throughout the course of American history it has not been either the executive branch or the legislative branch of our government that has been tolerant of protest. In fact those two very political branches seem to not even understand the right to protest although they each often pay lip service to the First Amendment. It has traditionally been the legal or judicial branch that has stepped in to keep the other 2 seemingly more powerful and popular branches in check. Maybe it is because those two branches, elected by a majority, do not gain anything by upholding the rights of the minority. Perhaps it is because we insulate the judiciary from politics that it can see and give credence to a less popular but morally right position.
I came across a case the other day that caused a judge to again figure out what equals lawful protest and what equals disturbing the peace. It takes place on a quiet campus of Cornell University in Ithaca New York.
In People V. Millhollen, 2004 WL 2246158 (N.Y.City Ct.), 2004 N.Y. Slip Op. 24371 (City court of Ithaca 2004) The court was asked if the act of a University student to climb onto a tree on the campus and remain there after being ordered to descend by police and university administration was “protected speech” under the first amendment. Evidently Elizabeth Millhollen was unhappy with a university decision to destroy a grove of trees to build a parking lot. Noting that “it always seemed to go that they take paradise and put up a parking lot” (apologizes to Joanie Mitchell who actually wrote the song 20 years before The Counting Crowes recorded it) Our intrepid tree hugging Ivy leaguer sought to let university officials know of her concern for the environment. The university which had probably hired a contractor and couldn't wait to get some asphalt down, was none too pleased. It charged Ms. Millhollen with Disorderly Conduct and Trespass.
The Court held that a) Ms. Millhollen was permitted to be on the grounds as she was a lawfully registered student of Cornell, b) She was not drawing a crowd and was not interfering with the ingress and egress to and or from a public or even a quasi-public place, c) she posed no danger to others and little danger to herself, d) her purpose and being in the tree was not incompatible with the university;s normal activities, and e) she had a legitimate gripe and was there for a purpose. Hence she was neither trespassing nor disorderly and the case was dismissed.
The court was careful to point out that “a peaceful demonstration that interferes with ingress and egress to and from a quasi-public place such as a supermarket may be unprotected and constitute trespass.”
It is also important to see that in the Cornell handbook they wrote:
“Title One: Statement of Principles and Policies I. Fundamental Principles C. The principle of freedom with responsibility is central to Cornell University. Freedom to teach and to learn, to express oneself and to be heard, and to assemble and lawfully protest peacefully are essential to academic freedom and the continuing function of the university as an educational institution. “ I guess that they believe in all that “freedom” as long as you agree with them. (That is what I meant by “lip service”.)
Anyway that is what the judge said and the above is what I thought. I’d like to know what you think. So leave a note and tell me if You agree with the university or the Judge. The best answer filed before November 30th 2004 will receive a gift certificate Border’s books. That Lawyer Dude shall be the sole judge of the competition and his decision is final. ( But you may peacefully protest the decision if you like and if you don’t disrupt anybody)