trump protesters

On March 12 in Chicago, Donald Trump postponed his scheduled rally citing “security concerns” after clashes took place both outside and inside the venue, the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion. Afterwards, protesters chanted “We stopped Trump!” in the streets, while many Trump supporters went home frustrated and angry.

With the ejection of demonstrators becoming commonplace at Trump rallies and protesters using increasingly aggressive disruption tactics, both sides are claiming their own right to free speech is being violated. Which side is right?

Location, location, location

The law is clear on this question: the only place where you have an absolute right to free speech is your own property. Otherwise, your speech can be constrained at the discretion of the property owner (public property will be discussed in a moment).

Once protesters enter the premises of private property owned (or rented like the University of Illinois at Chicago facility) by Trump, the First Amendment no longer protects their right to free expression. Trump can ban dissent and have protesters thrown out at his discretion.

Furthermore, this right, like all provisions of the Constitution, only restricts the actions of government. Private citizens, like Donald Trump, can choose to hold rallies that include only his supporters without interference, and he can call the police to remove disruptors who sneak inside. In other words, the right to protest does not include the right to trespass, whether or not Trump announces beforehand that those in opposition may attend.

The right to free expression and public property

However, the First Amendment does protect your right to protest outside the venue on public property. Indeed, counter-speech that contests opinions, ideas, and candidates we oppose is at the heart of a healthy democratic system. With that said, the government can still establish reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions, even on public property, for how you choose to demonstrate or protest.

Because public property is considered equally owned by all members of society, for the most part we all enjoy the right to protest and assemble there. Of course, protesters are restricted from violently interfering with the speech or movement of others, such as Trump supporters traveling across public property to get to a Trump rally.

Free speech and hate speech

But while the law may sanction Trump’s right to speak—no matter how objectionable some find his speech—and to kick demonstrators out of his rallies, the Constitution does not forbid those who disagree from “shutting down” his rhetoric.

In the weeks since the Chicago rally, a number of commentators and pundits have lamented the fact that a political speech was canceled due to “fears of violence.” It is not about “whose team you are on”, they argue, “violence” should never be used to suppress speech.

But demonstrators didn’t prevent the rally through violence or threats; they used the time-honored strategy of mass mobilization and confrontation. Far from an abstract value existing in a vacuum, freedom of speech takes place in contexts with substantial power disparities. It’s possible to defend this essential right while opposing rhetoric that scapegoats society’s most marginalized and oppressed groups.

Regardless, it’s advisable to keep the above distinctions in mind should you decide to protest—or if you’re on the side being protested against.

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