A Noisy and Thriving Democracy
Published: Friday, January 25, 2013
Updated: Friday, January 25, 2013 03:01
Barack Obama began his second inaugural address Monday by declaring, “Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution.”
It was a powerful message, one made more powerful by the fact that hundreds on the National Mall couldn’t hear it. Instead, they were subjected to a man screaming from the top of a tree, “Obama supports abortion! Obama is an anti-Christ!”
I stood among those audience members, many of whom travelled across the country and endured hours in the frigid cold to witness this historic event. All it took was one man, armed with a small sign and an impenetrable pulpit, to completely spoil our experience. Yet perhaps in irritation there can be inspiration, for although the words of Obama’s speech were drowned out, the meaning behind them rang clear.
It was around 8 a.m. when Rives Miller Grogan scaled a 40-foot tree about 300 yards from the Capitol building and began his diatribe. For the next six hours, the anti-abortion protester shouted relentlessly from a perch that broadcast his voice and eluded the police. His cries ranged from the tame — “Think of the babies!” — to the incendiary — “American abortion caused Newtown!”
No amount of pleading from the crowd or the police could stop him, nor did anything occurring on the inaugural stage, from the opening benediction to Beyoncé’s national anthem. Grogan has a well-developed modus operandi, having stormed the field at professional sporting events and interrupted proceedings in the U.S. Senate.
But as infuriating as Grogan’s demonstration was to hundreds of deafened and distracted attendees, there was a noticeable hint of decorum to his conduct. He was neither obscene nor violent, and he calmly told police that he would climb down after the event. He even challenged the audience to debate, although that ended with cries of “Shut up!” and a return to his “What about justice?” refrain.
Freedom of speech is among the most cherished constitutional rights to which Obama made reference, yet a true commitment to this protection demands that we tolerate not only the disagreeable, but also the distasteful. It is tested in the face of the radical, unpopular and unpleasant — opinions that exceed reasonability to the point that many wish they were silenced. Indeed, many in the crowd joined in periodic chants of “shake that tree.”
The inauguration scenario presents an intriguing case study for the boundaries of free speech. Audience members could not simply walk away, for they were already packed closely together in competition for a good view. They couldn’t just cover their ears, for the words being said on stage were the focus of the occasion. Ignoring the danger and illegality of climbing a tree in public, which were legitimate grounds for the eventual arrest, Grogan’s complete disregard for social norms produces a challenging dilemma between public interest and personal freedom.
As a journalist on assignment at the event, I have a strong resentment for almost all forms of censorship. Yet as a student, I appreciate the law’s longstanding enforcement of time, place and manner restrictions on free speech. Those restrictions, however, must be implemented with great restraint. After all, protests are often reliant on the context of their delivery — if all speech could be confined to the privacy of our homes, for example, “free speech” would be reduced to an empty promise.
I’ve withheld commentary on the content of Grogan’s protest because that isn’t relevant to the more basic question at hand. His arguments — however extreme — were substantive, and it is neither my place nor the law’s to assess his right to protest on the basis of its merit. Free speech is most important for contentious matters, and many who adamantly reject Grogan’s position can still appreciate the gravity of the issue for someone with his perspective. It goes against the principle of free speech to demand that some topics be separated from crowds and controversy.
I join many of those in the audience around me in wishing that Grogan had been more civil, but civil disobedience is still a legitimate recourse in democracy. The protest may have prevented many from celebrating the occasion as intended, but we can take greater pride in celebrating the system and society that allows it.
DANNY FUNT is a junior in the College. He is editor-in-chief of The Hoya.