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Peaceful Assembly in the USA

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. The freedom of assembly is defined as the right to hold public meetings and form associations without interference by the government. Freedom of peaceable assembly is further strengthened by the Fourteenth Amendment, which states that the state governments also cannot pass laws prohibiting these gatherings but can place limited restrictions on the time, place, and manner of them.

The freedom of assembly was deemed essential, apart from freedom of speech, because of important events in British and American colonial history. In 1670, William Penn and William Mead attempted to hold a meeting of fellow Quakers in London, in direct violation of the Conventicle Act of 1664, which “forbade any Nonconformists attending a religious meeting, or assembling themselves together to the number of more than five persons in addition to members of the family, for any religious purpose not according to the rules of the Church of England”. Penn and Mead were promptly arrested by soldiers who had prevented their entering of the meeting-house, because Penn started to preach in the street. They were put on trial because they were part of an “unlawful assembly”. More than a century later, when the British shut down Boston Harbor post-Quartering Act, in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party, the Continental Congress and Patriots were not able to hold meetings in secret because of the pervasive presence of British troops in the city. These meetings would have been deemed “unlawful assemblies” by the British courts and thus the Congress had to take their meetings elsewhere. These instances were well-known by the newly-elected US House of Representatives, some of whom believed that it was essential to secure the right of peaceable assembly.

The right to assemble peaceably was inserted into the First Amendment in 1791. At the very inception of our country, Representatives hotly debated what to include in the Constitution. Massachusetts Representative Theodore Sedgwick argued that they should strike the passage about the right of peaceable assembly as it was already linked with freedom of speech because people had to assemble to speak publicly about their opinions. John Page, representing Virginia, countered Sedgwick’s argument with the objection that, even though these two freedoms seem to go hand in hand, people who spoke freely in some instances did so, not necessarily in groups, and people who did get together to hold assemblies as Penn, Mead, and their “friends” had, were put on trial because they lacked that freedom. Page’s arguments ultimately convinced the House to enshrine the liberty of peaceable assembly in the Bill of Rights.

Another instance of this freedom being challenged was in 1800 and 1804, when laws forbade slaves from gathering for worship or any gathering at night in Virginia and South Carolina. Another Virginia law, this one made in 1831, made all gathering anywhere that was between any slaves, whether free or not, an unlawful assembly. These laws were in direct violation of the fourteenth amendment which states that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”. During the Civil Rights Movement, a time when protests for equal treatment and rights for black people started to increase in size and number, this freedom was again challenged. Peaceful demonstrations, in which both African and white Americans took part, spread throughout the country, the most famous one being the March on Washington in 1963. This demonstration was able to take place without government interference because the right to assemble was secured.

In today’s society the freedom of assembly that has been granted to us is still being challenged, but also upheld. Because of the COVID-19 virus, many public places were shut down to keep the American people safe and healthy. Many state governments closed all businesses in their jurisdiction unless deemed an essential part of society like factories, grocery stores, and hospitals. Graduation ceremonies were canceled, weddings and funerals were allowed a maximum of ten people, and wearing masks and socially distancing was required. Local governments implemented stay-at-home orders. These measures made all group gatherings against the law because they would violate the protections put in place. However, in late May, 2020, George Floyd, an African American man, was killed by a white police officer while in custody. This caused an uproar in many cities throughout the country and mass protests, some of which turned into riots. The protests in Washington, D.C. commonly involved taking up a public street to protest police brutality against African Americans. This is an instance where the government could have stopped or changed the manner, time, or place of these gatherings because they went against the COVID restrictions on assembly that were already in place. The protests were allowed to continue, a tribute to the first amendment. Only when protests turned violent, and rioting and looting ensued, did the government sometimes intervene.

Contemporary challenges to our freedom of assembly can potentially be fixed. First and foremost, the federal and local government should be extremely hesitant to impose restrictions on assemblies so as not to violate our freedom. However, the government should criminally punish all individuals involved in organizing or participating in destructive, violent protests or riots, as these are not protected by the Constitution. Furthermore, the state and local governments should apply reopening policies to all public places evenly. If restaurants and casinos are allowed to reopen, churches should be granted that same liberty. Even though these fixes are proposed, the challenge to American freedom of peaceable assembly is present and will remain present in the future as it has in the past.