First Amendment topicsAbout the First Amendment
Fear of dissent is a fear of freedom
Inside the First Amendment

By Paul K. McMasters
First Amendment Center ombudsman

Late last month, a junior sociology major at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., silently stationed himself near a military recruiters’ table on campus. The student, Tariq Khan, is a Pakistani-American and a veteran who served four years in the U.S. Air Force. He held literature and wore a sign stating, “Recruiters lie. Don’t be deceived.”

The recruiters, naturally, were not happy. Some bystanders weren’t either. Words were exchanged. Campus police arrived, Tariq Khan was unable to produce identification, a scuffle ensued, and the student, bruised and bloodied, according to one news account, was taken to jail. He will appear in court on Nov. 14 on misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and trespassing.

That same day, at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, a similar clash was unfolding. State police in riot gear, with gas masks at the ready, were on hand when a dozen or more students gathered to protest National Guard recruiters on campus. A police officer reportedly grabbed a student’s sign, reading “Cops Are Hypocrites.” The student wound up banned from campus and facing possible criminal charges.

Similar anti-military recruiting protests have resulted in similar confrontations on college and university campuses across the nation, according to an Oct. 12 article in The Nation. They include New York’s City College, William Paterson University in New Jersey, San Francisco State, the University of California-Santa Cruz and the University of Wisconsin.

Protesters off campus run into the same problems. On Sept. 26, 370 anti-war protesters outside the White House were hauled away to jail. Also that day, 41 demonstrators at the Pentagon were picked up and carted off for booking.

Officially, authorities cite trespass, disorderly conduct, failure to obtain a permit and similar laws as reasons for arrests, threats of arrest and disruption of such demonstrations. Unofficially, they send a chilling signal that disagreement with government policy or majority opinion can get you in trouble with the law.

That message is clearly sent when police videotape peaceful gatherings, which happened at the teach-in at George Mason University the week after the arrest of Tariq Khan.

That message is clearly sent when authorities cite possible involvement in “terrorist activities” as justification for spying on advocacy groups. The American Civil Liberties Union recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act an FBI document that targets a peace group and an affirmative-action group in Michigan.

“This document confirms our fears that federal and state counterterrorism officers have turned their attention to groups and individuals engaged in peaceful protest activities,” said Ben Wizner, an ACLU staff attorney.

One does not have to endorse or defend anti-war or anti-military sentiments raised in peaceful protests to recognize the risk that suppressing dissenting voices poses for a vital democracy. Whether stifling such voices is done in the name of good order or disagreement with the message, such actions reflect a fear of dissent.

Fear regularly tests Americans’ commitment to First Amendment rights and values. It has done so since the nation’s inception. And we have yet to conquer the instinct to fear speech and limit liberty.

That instinct is especially active during wartime. Afraid of foreign enemies, we’ve attacked our own rights. We sent hundreds of Americans to prison under the 1798 Sedition Act and the 1917 Espionage Act for criticizing war or the government or its leaders.

Today, facing real and symbolic wars against terrorism, we too often allow our leaders to insulate themselves from criticism and opposition. Public officials herd college students, demonstrators, even journalists, into so-called “free-speech zones.” Government agents peer over the shoulders of ordinary citizens engaged in First Amendment activities on the Internet, on cell phones, at the library, even at their places of worship. We propose amending the Constitution to prevent burning a U.S. flag as political protest.

The fear and distrust driving such actions is particularly dangerous when they defang political discourse. Discourse promotes deliberation. Deliberation ensures sound and supported government policies and actions. But without robust dissent, discourse is anemic and ultimately ineffectual.

That’s why the courts generally have held that the First Amendment protects dissent, which in turn ensures government accountability, fosters new ideas and sharpens old ones. In the absence of clear and concerted citizen commitment to such principles, however, all speech eventually kneels before official authority.

Constitutional guarantees alone will not fully protect those principles because freedom of expression, the right to dissent especially, each day must face and prevail over the power of government, the will of the majority and the passions of the moment.

With such powerful forces arrayed against it, dissent also requires the protection of an independent judiciary and an informed public.

The more unpopular the protest, the more our commitment to the First Amendment is tested. When we’re tested, we’re reminded of the menace to democracy and freedom posed by what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis termed “silence coerced by law.”

The First Amendment is important, not only because it protects our rights, but also because it gives us the courage to fight for what can be ours if we dare claim it: freedom from fear, the freedom to speak and the right to disagree.

Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:


Law students seek pardons for WWI seditionists

University of Montana students are combing court records, archive collections to clear 74 Montanans convicted of sedition in 1918 and 1919. 01.09.06

VA nurse's letter to newspaper prompts sedition probe
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., wants to know why veterans' agency would investigate employee for writing letter criticizing Bush administration. 02.08.06

Silencing ourselves by censoring others
By Paul K. McMasters Americans don't face censorship problems the way people in other countries do, right? Not quite. 12.26.04

Discouraging words: the war on information
By Paul K. McMasters Ironically, while administration officials suppress and punish criticism by government employees, they expand the boundaries of their own speech. 02.26.06

Analysis/Commentary summary page
View the latest analysis and commentary throughout the First Amendment Center Online.

print this   Print

Last system update: Friday, July 25, 2008 | 08:07:28
About this site
About the First Amendment
About the First Amendment Center
First Amendment programs
State of the First Amendment

First Reports
Supreme Court
First Amendment publications
First Amendment Center history
Freedom Sings™
First Amendment

Congressional Research Service reports
Guest editorials
FOI material
The First Amendment

Lesson plans
Contact us
Privacy statement
Related links