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The Meaning and Importance of Dissent

In their new book, Ratner and Ratner Kunstler discuss Americans' right to protest -- and how those rights are often trampled on by the U.S. government.

The following is an excerpt from Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in Twenty-First Century America by Michael Ratner and Margaret Ratner Kunstler, published this spring by the New Press.

Many of us think of the constitutionally protected right to dissent as the right to speak our minds and write and publish what we think. But free speech is only one of three related rights protected by the First Amendment. Not only is Congress prohibited from passing a law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” the amendment also protects “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” and their right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Taken together, the right to free speech, the right of assembly, and the explicit right to express grievances to the government add up to an expansive right to “dissent” enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Beyond written or spoken words, the right to dissent is the right of citizens to organize themselves, to associate, to make themselves heard in order to achieve political and social change and oppose government policies without fear of impediment or reprisal.

Despite these clear protections, the government has not always lived up to its constitutionally required mandate to protect our right to dissent. Indeed, it is this right that the government, whether federal, state, or local, has typically targeted for repression, especially in times of claimed “emergencies.” That has been true historically and it is true today. Often, federal agencies and state and city governments, at times of both war and relative quiescence, try through surveillance, infiltration, and limits on protest to suppress dissent. Most of these repressive efforts have ultimately been beaten back, but not before people were jailed, and often not until the effects of the claimed “emergency” that purportedly justified the restrictions had dissipated.

Since the founding of this nation, the government has made many efforts to restrict free speech and dissent. The list on page 8 is a cursory overview of major turning points in the history of attacks on dissent. The rest of this chapter provides a more in-depth look at the continued assault on our right to dissent over the past fifty years, with a special focus on the new post–9/11 legal framework.

It is important to note that government measures limiting organized dissent have become increasingly common in our society since the terrorist attacks of 2001.
These assaults upon and criminalization of dissent—from the surveillance of activists to the federalization of local law enforcement to the labeling of activists as
“terrorists”—dismantle piece by piece a core right considered essential to meaningful democracy. Understanding the evisceration of this right is a first step to regaining our lost liberties.

Bringing About Political and Social Change

Free speech is a bedrock principle of our nation. The Framers believed that open and unfettered discussion would promote better thinking and decisions, particularly important when it came to government policies. The Supreme Court stated in 1964 in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, a seminal case on modern-day dissent:

The general proposition that freedom of expression upon public questions is secured by the First Amendment has long been settled by our decisions. The constitutional safeguard, we have said, “was fashioned to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people.”

This “unfettered interchange of ideas” on public issues, according to Sullivan, must be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open . . . [and] it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

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