July 20, 2019 | 78° F

HINRICHS: Rutgers should support freedom of speech, not abridge it

Opinions Column: Unveiling the Truth


When a nation formed on protest begins to unravel the seams that tie its values together, its founding pillars begin to crumble under the weight of its evils. We have moved too far from our revolutionary tradition, from our abolitionist tradition and from the realities of the suffering among people. In doing so, we have begun to consider mild acts and transgressions of law and order against existing evils as indefensible crimes against society. This path of condemning protest and constricting civil disobedience leads us astray, away from our democratic and American values.

One of the most fundamental documents in American history, the Declaration of Independence, has "protest" written into its skeleton. When the government’s laws become too oppressive, and our lives and liberties are infringed upon, those laws must be addressed through debate, protest and the masses. The Declaration of Independence asserted that no government is sacred and that government is built by the people for the people.

When government fails to defend life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and when a government begins to oppress the people, actions must be taken to address and abolish the institutionally eroded system.

However, it must be noted that when the Declaration of Independence fueled revolution and the revolution fueled the forming of a new government, all people were neither free nor equal. Thus revolution, dissent and disobedience had to and has to continue in order to bring about true equality then and now.

The Boston Tea Party, the suffragette movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and many others, student sit-ins against the Vietnam War, the Occupy movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement are all instances in which civil disobedience was and is used as an important mechanism for social change.

Immense opposition from the proponents of an unjust status quo has often met acts of civil disobedience and peaceful protest throughout the discourse of American history. Today, as protest is continually needed in our progressing democratic society, those in favor of the current status and regression to old ways have begun measures and movements to remove cogs in the machine of social improvement.

There is a growing trend to attack the right of peaceful protest by proposing and enacting anti-protest bills that prevent the voices of outrage and activism to be heard. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 30 bills from 20 states have been either introduced or passed into law that criminalize peaceful protest and constrain the right to state grievances.

Specifically, the protests in opposition to President Donald J. Trump’s unconstitutional and inhumane Muslim ban, the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the death of Philando Castile and police brutality in a systematically racist judicial system are all examples of protests that directly lead to Republican legislators proposing bills to constrain freedom of speech.

For example, according to the ACLU, North Dakota legislators introduced multiple bills that allow drivers to drive through and hit protesters obstructing a road, make wearing a mask at a demonstration or in any public forum a punishable offense and allow protesters to be sentenced with up to 30 days in prison at private prison facilities.

These shameful bills have gained international condemnation. Representatives from the Office of United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a statement expressing grave concern for American and international values, which conflict with the bills. It said, “The bills, if enacted into law, would severely infringe upon the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in ways that are incompatible with U.S. obligations under international human rights law and with First Amendment protections. The trend also threatens to jeopardize one of the United States’ constitutional pillars: free speech.”

Peaceful protests in which people come together to state their grievances and dissent, hoping to change an injustice in society must be celebrated in our representative democracy and not met with laws that chain our freedoms.

Disgracefully, many of these bills are built on the same reasoning and contain the same details as Rutgers University’s new protest policy. Both the change in policy and change in laws come under the false flag of community betterment, a misleading deception in which freedoms that cultivate greater unity, understanding and growth within a community are stolen from the people in the name of safety and civility. The new policy specifically prohibits student protests in private offices and meeting areas, as reported by The Daily Targum, making it harder for the voices of students to be heard atop the ivory tower of Rutgers.

Do not forget the sit-ins in college presidents’ offices which led to the desegregation of universities and campuses. Do not forget the social improvement reached for by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. When voices are not heard, peaceful actions will be listened to. Rutgers best serves its student body by not abridging their freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but by supporting them. The new policy of Rutgers is an injustice to the history of hard fought social progress by students and the youth. This policy that constrains calls of progress cannot remain as the natural tide of change will either have the originator remove the policy or have the originator watch it be washed away.

Luke Hinrichs is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in political science and economics. His column “Unveiling the Truth“ runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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Luke Hinrichs

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