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First Amendment and Freedom of Assembly

Written by Dick Pryor on Wednesday February 29, 2012


The Sheet

February 5, 2012

"Time" magazine raised a few eyebrows with their selection of the "Person of the Year" for 2011: The Protester. Not just one protester, but the thousands of protesters here and around the world who took to the streets in 2011 to protest for fair treatment, union rights, lower taxes, regime change and more.

The events of the Arab Spring undoubtedly was a major influence on that selection, but there were significant protests in the United States, too. While Tea Party protests have waned, new protest groups rose in prominence. The Occupy Wall Street movement grabbed headlines for weeks and spread well beyond Manhattan, even into Oklahoma. In Wisconsin, thousands of people occupied that state's capitol building to protest the rollback of union rights. Yes, it was a year for protesting.

In Oklahoma City, the Occupy OKC group ran afoul of city ordinances regulating overnight camping in city parks. A court ruling led to protesters being forced to leave and ignited debate over the rights of U.S. citizens to peaceably protest, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The "assembly "clause is the least known of the 5 freedoms established in the First Amendment. Occupy protesters claimed city ordinances enforced by the police infringed on their "freedom of speech," when in fact it might have been more accurately (and persuasively) characterized as limitation on their "freedom of assembly."

Our panel discussed these distinctions and the boundaries of "the right of the people peaceably to assemble." Our guests were: Joseph Thai, Presidential Professor of Law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law; former State Representative Ryan Kiesel, who is now Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma; and Marc Blitz, Professor of Law at the Oklahoma City University School of Law.

This is not an easy area of law to understand, with much of the discussion centering on terms of art such as "reasonable time, place and manner restrictions," "content-neutral," "expressive conduct," and "public forum analysis." We discussed some of the key cases in this area of jurisprudence, including a key 1984 case, Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that protesters wanting to camp on the National Mall had other ways to get their message across.

I think it is fair to say that this is a program you won't get anywhere else – providing a thoughtful discussion of the legal issues surrounding this basic, but often misunderstood, right of American citizens.

Until next time,

Dick Pryor

(Pictured above, left to right: Host Dick Pryor, Joseph Thai, Marc Blitz, Ryan Kiesel)

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