Editorial: Whither Freedom of Assembly?
(APN) ATLANTA — In less than a month, the people of the United States have witnessed a widespread, systematic, sustained, and increasing curtailment of their civil liberties and constitutional rights in the wake of the Coronavirus national pandemic.
Day after day, one level of government or another–whether the city, the county, or the state–has issued an emergency declaration ordering people to stay at home.
Gov. Kemp’s orders now supersede all city and county orders, so at least there is more consistency.
However, no executive order seems to have made any exception, in their myriad lists of exceptions, for members of the public to exercise their right to protest, consistent with the First Amendment to the Federal and State Constitutions, both Freedom of Assembly and Freedom of Speech.
When we are in crisis and we are presented with new challenges, our voices matter more than ever. Democracy isn’t cancelled. Clearly, if we could trust the elites to run our government, we wouldn’t be sitting here now with a Third World hospital capacity.
What if a group of activists wanted to protest outside the jail to say, “Let the prisoners go! They’re packed in like sardines, exposing them to the virus!”
According to the City of Atlanta, Fulton County, and State of Georgia executive orders, this would be engaging in criminal activity.
But what if the protesters were following all “social distancing” guidelines? What if they were all standing six feet apart and wearing marks?
Just to stack the deck, what if there were only nine protesters – one fewer than the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guideline of no gatherings of more than ten people?
According to Kemp’s Order and the erstwhile local orders, it would still be non-exempt activity from the stay-at-home order, and therefore criminal activity.
Even when the goal of the protest is to save the lives of prisoners. And then – here’s the best part – the government has threatened to punish you for exposing yourself to the virus by putting you in jail, thus increasing your likelihood of exposure to the virus!
Governor Kemp recently revised his executive order to exempt religious services, so at least Freedom of Religion gets a nod. Kemp’s order still expects social distancing to take place at any religious gatherings.
Also, Freedom of the Press seems to have been exempted from the stay-at-home order. Members of the media are considered employees of critical infrastructure organizations, as defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
But states don’t get to pick and choose which constitutional rights, or even which components of the First Amendment, are deserving of protection. There’s no reason why Georgia’s order couldn’t allow gatherings of protesters to occur, with social distancing, just like churches.
In general, the lack of public discourse about our constitutional rights during this time is deeply troubling.
The bottom line is that any restrictions must be justified, the restrictions must be proportional to their justifications, and they must be narrowly tailored to protect our cherished freedoms – speech, assembly, press, religion, etc. – wherever possible.
With climate change–the other curve that requires flattening–and with global conflict still unresolved, this is not the first time our rights are going to be tested.
After more than two hundred years of a sacred Constitution, one virus should not just cast aside everything that we have preserved thus far. And yet, the corporate media seems to be rallying elected officials to curtail more rights.
Our voices matter. The call for participatory democracy and the call for progressive public policy are one and the same. It is the silencing of our voices that got us into this mess, and it is our voices that will be critical to transforming our society to meet the challenges of this century.
(END / Copyright Atlanta Progressive News / 2020)