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Responsibility and Respect

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"In late autumn of 1982, respondents sought permission to conduct a round-the-clock demonstration in Lafayette Park and on the Mall. Part of the demonstration would include homeless persons sleeping outside in tents without any other amenities. Respondents sought to begin their demonstration on a date full of ominous meaning to any homeless person: the first day of winter. Respondents were similarly purposeful in choosing demonstration sites"The primary purpose for making sleep an integral part of the demonstration was 'to reenact the central reality of homelessness"and to impress upon public consciousness, in as dramatic a way as possible, that homelessness is a widespread problem, often ignored, that confronts its victims with life-threatening deprivations"'


In a long line of cases, this Court has afforded First Amendment protection to expressive conduct that qualifies as symbolic speech. See, e.g., Tinker v. Des Moines School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 "] 393 U.S. 503 (1969) (black armband worn by students in public school as protest against United States policy in Vietnam war); Brown v. Louisiana, 383 U.S. 131 (1966) (sit-in by Negro students in 'whites only' library to protest segregation); Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359 (1931) (flying red flag as gesture of support for communism). In light of the surrounding context, respondents' proposed activity meets the qualifications. The Court has previously acknowledged the importance of context in determining whether an act can properly be denominated as 'speech' for First Amendment purposes and has provided guidance concerning the way in which courts should 'read' a context in making this determination. The leading case is 393 U.S. 503 (1969) (black armband worn by students in public school as protest against United States policy in Vietnam war); Brown v. Louisiana, 383 U.S. 131 (1966) (sit-in by Negro students in 'whites only' library to protest segregation); Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359 (1931) (flying red flag as gesture of support for communism). In light of the surrounding context, respondents' proposed activity meets the qualifications. The Court has previously acknowledged the importance of context in determining whether an act can properly be denominated as 'speech' for First Amendment purposes and has provided guidance concerning the way in which courts should 'read' a context in making this determination. The leading case is Spence v. Washington, 418 U.S. 405 (1974), where this Court held that displaying a United States flag with a peace symbol attached to it was conduct protected by the First Amendment . The Court looked first to the intent of the speaker -- whether there was an 'intent to convey a particularized message' -- and second to the perception of the audience -- whether 'the likelihood was great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it.' Id. at 410-411. Here, respondents clearly intended to protest the reality of homelessness by sleeping outdoors in the winter in the near vicinity of the magisterial residence of the President of the United States. In addition to accentuating the political character of their protest by their choice of location and mode of communication, respondents also intended to underline the meaning of their protest by giving their demonstration satirical names. Respondents planned to name the demonstration on the Mall 'Congressional Village,' and the demonstration in Lafayette Park, ' Reaganville II.' App. 13."

 

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The Occupy Movement's takeover of parks in various American cities and towns, at the very nexus of either political or economic power in those municipalities' jurisdictions, meets Justice Marshall's criteria for expressive conduct that is in fact symbolic speech. If the rest of the court at that time was too frightened or too conservative--which may indeed be redundant--to follow its own precedents, then that is the fault of a weak and vapid court, subservient to the interests of a reactionary segment of society, rather than to the nation as a whole. This was certainly the case in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). It is equally true for the application of Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence (468 U.S. 288) today.


The government is never supposed to have an easy time when We the People express ourselves and our rights under the First Amendment. This is especially true when we are using those rights to demand a redress of grievances on the massive scale which the Occupy Movement is doing today.

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Ayn Rand's Objectivists and other right-wing extremists--including Presidential candidate Ron Paul--represent w hat Robert Locke quite properly called "The Marxism of the Right" (The American Conservative, March 14, 2005). In my opinion, this group of intellectual children want the blessings of freedom, without the concomitant responsibilities.


Our rights under the Constitution are precious things, which should be worth far more to Americans than mere gold or silver. These rights were sanctified by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence--"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness"--and initially--if not exhaustively--enumerated by the Bill of Rights. They are too often used by those who claim that government is the source of all that is wrong in the world: as a license to ignore the needs of their community, as well as their fellow human beings, and as an excuse for refusing even the most basic duties of a citizen to the government.


These "refuseniks" in fact remind me very much of Socrates and his disciples, as I.F. Stone describes them in his book The Trial of Socrates (1988).

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There are many important reasons why every American should make at least a cursory study of the history of ancient Greece. But Athens deserves our special attention because that is where the idea of Freedom of Speech in political discourse, as well as the responsibility of all citizens to take an active role in their government, originated. I would strongly recommend reading the late Mr. Stone's book to fulfill the minimum requirement of knowledge of Ancient Greece that all Americans need.


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Richard Girard is an increasingly radical representative of the disabled and disenfranchised members of America's downtrodden, who suffers from bipolar disorder (type II or type III, the professionals do not agree). He has put together a team to (more...)
 

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