Freedom to Offend? What is the First Amendment

A Look at the Legality of the Chicago Donald Trump Rally

Donald Trump

Photo by Politico

There is no more a decisive figure in American politics at the moment than Donald Trump. His critics claim that he is a racist demagogue who calls for violence against protesters, many of whom are minorities. His supporters claim that the mainstream media is grossly exaggerating Trump’s flaws, and that his very running for office is doing great things to bring down the firmly entrenched political establishment. Either way, both sides are fired up, and this has led to clashes.

There is no question Trump has used incendiary language at his events in the past. As a protestor was being led away from an event, the candidate once said, “"I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell ya.” After yet another group of protestors disrupted a Trump rally, he told the crowd that, “in the good old days this didn’t used to happen, because they used to treat them very rough.” And, most famously, after an elderly man sucker-punched a protestor during a North Carolina rally, Trump said to the crowd that he’d “pay the legal fees of anyone who punched a protestor.”

The two sides really came to a clash on March 11th in Chicago when, in the face of a huge anti-Trump demonstration, the Trump campaign canceled the event out of concern for the safety of both the candidate and the people attending the rally. As it turns out, that may have been a smart choice because the night turned bloody as the two groups clashed. Angry words and later punches were exchanged as the two groups mingled outside of the hall. The conflict led to several people on both sides being arrested; others were taken to the hospital for injuries. A now infamous photo shows a Chicago police officer with his head bloodied, both sides blaming the other for the outbreak of violence.

Anti-Trump protestors, many of whom align politically with Democratic senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, claim victory in stopping Trump's Chicago rally. The Trump campaign is claiming that the candidate’s, and by extension, his supporters’, right to Freedom of Speech and Assembly was violated. Since then, there have been a myriad of articles on both sides claiming that the protestors did violate the rights, or that they didn’t because of their own rights, or that, even if they did, Trump has previously encouraged violence against protestors so any actual violence doesn’t matter. I’m going to ignore that and focus just on the law.

First, do people who disagree with Donald Trump’s positions have a right to protest against him? Yes, absolutely. Just as he is free to say things that other people may find objectionable with protection from the First Amendment, so too are people free to express their displeasure with him by assembling. 

Second, do protestors have the right to protest inside Trump rallies themselves? That was a big part of the Chicago rally; of the nearly 9,000 people inside the arena where Trump was to speak, estimates put about one in three of them being protestors. And here is where things get tricky. While everyone has a right to protest on public property, a private event is a different animal. So despite the fact that Trump has encouraged violence against protestors (which certainly isn’t helping the climate at all) he, and his security staff, have every right to remove people who are being loud and disruptive from the event. 

One of the main issues with events like this, and any other Trump rallies that are shut down because of protestors in the future, is how much of the response is based on fear of violence. Just as protestors don’t have a right to protest inside a private event, they also don’t have a right to make threats or intimidate people who may want to attend Trump rallies. I do not agree with just about anything Donald Trump says or stands for, but there are some things that are more important than Donald Trump: namely Freedom of Speech and Assembly. These are rights that must exist long after the name “Trump” has faded from memory.

Politics has always been a divisive issue and Trump is nothing if not divisive. If you support Trump, go to rallies and hear him speak; you have a right to. If you hate Trump, stand outside and peacefully protest; you have a right to do that as well. What does no one any good is when either group tries to violate the rights of the other. There are some things that make America great, and it would be good for both sides to remember that the right to peacefully have your voice heard - no matter what you have to say - is one of them.