Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Threatened Voices: Protests in the Era of Trump

By Emmy ChenPublished October 12, 2017

In perhaps one of America's most tumultuous political climates, widespread demonstrations have swept the nation. But as recently proposed bills have begun cracking down on this display of representative democracy, is our fundamental right to free speech at risk?
By Emmy Chen

Amongst the turmoil in the post-election Trump era, an uproar of minority and targeted voices has taken to the nation's streets in organized waves with colorful, creative signs and unified mantras. The unrest is not unwarranted, as according to recent polling, Trump's job approval rating in the first month stands at a mere 40%, a full 21 percentage points below the presidential average during this time period. In the largest day of protest in U.S. history, it is estimated that between 3.3 and 4.6 million people marched in the Women's March following Donald Trump's inauguration. Since then, countless other demonstrations and organized protests have broken out across the nation, protesting the presidency and its administration, and drawing attention to those in danger of being affected by his policies on everything from climate change and immigration, to women's health and school funding.
                  Republican legislators, however, have responded unfavorably, not only ignoring the demands for change, but lashing back with hostility. In at least 18 states, lawmakers have begun pushing a wave of bills targeting these protestors and their tactics, such as by  increasing penalties on illegal protests. Among countless examples of such bills, a Tennessee state representative has filed a bill giving drivers immunity from civil liability if they run over protestors, even if the victims are injured or killed. Similar bills have also been proposed in North Dakota and Iowa regarding traffic obstruction. Meanwhile other states have turned to targeting financial assets of protestors and threatening felony charges and prison time, such as Arizona, which is pushing to punish organizers under racketeering charges. As riots and demonstrations across the nation have increased their presence, so too have Republican legislators in their efforts to clamp down on them.
                  While at first glimpse, these legislative actions may seem a little harsh at most and done in the favor of public safety, its context has implications for a much larger, much more threatening national issue. If these bills are passed, they will be the first step in criminalization and possible full infringement of free speech. Free speech advocates, such as attorney Lee Rowland from the American Civil Liberties Union, have identified this "alarming spread of state legislation" as "unconstitutional right out of the gate." Historically, we have seen such widespread legislative backlash against protests in other eras of significant public demonstrations, such as the labor movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, or the civil rights movements. All of these laws were put in place to, along the same lines, curtail the ability to organize. Instead of respecting the people's rights to express their grievances and peacefully organize, they have gone out of their way to silence them. And without a force to stop these bills from passing, we may soon see our fundamental rights stripped away.
In perhaps one of America's most tumultuous political climates, we, the people, have if nothing else, our voices. Beyond all, our constitutional right founded in the First Amendment, the power of our breath to peacefully assemble and petition our government, is not only a fundamental value but also an integral element of American tradition. We are a country built on the passionate gatherings of democracy and solidarity. And it is in this moment of political crisis that we need, more than anything else, our right to the freedom of speech. The recent bills cracking down on this necessary right are nothing but atrociously unconstitutional and an infringement on our most basic freedoms.