Ronald J. Krotoszynski Jr.: Protecting Face-to-Face Protest

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Ronald J. Krotoszynski Jr., a professor of law at the University of Alabama, is the author of “Reclaiming the Petition Clause: Seditious Libel, ‘Offensive’ Protest, and the Right to Petition the Government for a Redress of Grievances.”

EVERY four years, we witness the spectacle of the presidential nominating conventions. And every four years, host cities, party leaders and police officials devise ever more creative ways of distancing protesters from the politicians, delegates and journalists attending these stage-managed affairs.

The goal is to trivialize and isolate dissenting speech without actually banning protest outright. One result is something of a Potemkin village: government proclaims its full commitment to respecting the First Amendment without actually permitting any observable dissent to take place near the convention....

The historical model of petitioning, going back to medieval England, literally involved laying a petition at the foot of the throne — while the king was sitting on it. The presentation of petitions has deep roots in American political culture. Quaker abolitionists used mass petitioning campaigns to advocate an end to the slave trade in the 1790s and the American Anti-Slavery Society renewed such efforts with similar campaigns in the 1830s and ’40s. Female suffragists embraced petitioning — as did Native Americans and veterans in later decades....

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