PA Shooting Raises Questions About the Right to Protest

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With the recent unrest in the United States, we have seen a rise in protests and riots across the country. With this increase in activity, the nation needs to examine the rights of individuals in these situations. The unequivocal right to protest was tested last night when a protestor was shot after an altercation in a residential neighborhood in Bedford, Pennsylvania. Because Pennsylvania has a “stand your ground” law, we have competing rights, so who is right in this situation?

The Evolution of the Right to Protest

Americans have a right to protest; the only people who will tell you otherwise are members of Democratic Governors’ staffs when people are telling the government that they want to go back to work. Our nation was founded on protest, not all of them peaceful, but where is that gray line between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable?

The right to protest is a hybridization of two of the most sacred rights in the Bill of Rights: the right to free speech and the right to assemble. By extension, we have come to accept that when people come together and peaceably voice their grievances, we have a protest. To add to the security of this right, if they are protesting to the government an injustice, it is also a form of petitioning the government. Protesting is sacrosanct and people have the right to do it.

However, there are limits to these rights. First of all, the right to assemble is governed by the Constitution and is limited to peaceful assembly. The Founding Fathers knew how violent protests and riots could get out of hand. Secondly, this assembly must occur in the public forum or somewhere people have permission. No one has the right to trespass or protest on private property, unless, of course, they have permission from the owner.

Free speech, likewise, is not unrestricted. We all know that you cannot yell, fire in a crowded theater (Schenck v. United States, 1919). But we have also seen restrictions on when and where you can have open free speech (read: protests). In Virginia v. Hicks (2003), the Supreme Court ruled that communities could ban non-residents from residential areas who did not have a legitimate “business or social” reason for being there. Additionally, noise ordinances (which most communities have), are seen as constitutional and are even supported by science.

Rights of Property Owners

Any time we look at the rights of individuals or groups to protest, we also need to look at the rights of individuals who are on the periphery of the protests. We all saw the nights of chaos in Minneapolis and the 40 nights of violent protests in Portland. Many of us even saw the young men who have been murdered at the protests. Where do their rights come into play in all of this?

In the state of Pennsylvania, there is a “stand your ground” law. Persons on their own property who feel threatened with death, substantial bodily harm, kidnapping, or sexual assault may use deadly force in defense of their person. The law in Pennsylvania does not grant this right to people -it is inherent as human beings – it acknowledges and codifies the boundaries of the law.

Overview of Last Night’s Shooting

The details about last night’s shooting in Bedford, Pennsylvania are sparse, but we know several facts. The protestors were protesting late at night in a small town, walking on the road, and in yards. We also know there was an altercation between the protestors and some of members of the community. The incident took place at around midnight in a rural community. The result of the encounter was that a man was shot, non-fatally.

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As noted, the details are still coming out in this case. A grainy, poorly filmed Facebook Stream has a person shouting, “He is shooting at us,” but it does not show the altercation or where the people where when the shooting took place. We do not have the details and the details change who was right and who was in the wrong in this matter. We will not know until all the evidence comes out.

What we do know is that protestors are beginning to take too many liberties from other people. While everyone has the right to be heard and to petition the government, this right does not mean that other people’s lives and businesses may be destroyed. Each American has a right to protect his or her property and person.

IF this person felt threatened AND IF the altercation took place on private property, then the case may have been justified. If both of these conditionsl were not met, then the protestor is in the right. Regardless, the peaceful trek of Nitty (the man marching to Washington) is drawing attention to problems in society. Had he been alone, without riotous ‘hangers on’ following him, then this tragedy would likely not have happened.

This is another case showing that sometimes the message of the people who want to make social change (Nitty) is often covered up by the glory seekers who try to follow their message. We hope the man who was shot has a speedy recovery and the case is resolved in the courts, not in the kangaroo court of public opinion.

Christopher W Smithmyer
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