A group of protesters recently shut down Donald Trump’s rally in Chicago. Afterwards, Trump tweeted the following:
The organized group of people, many of them thugs, who shut down our First Amendment rights in Chicago, have totally energized America!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 12, 2016
This tweet demonstrates that Trump does not understand the First Amendment. While it may be disturbing that a presidential candidate has fundamentally misunderstood the Constitution, it is not really surprising because many Americans don’t grasp the purpose of the First Amendment either.
People often correctly state that the First Amendment codifies the right to “freedom of speech.” However, the phrase “freedom of speech” has been used so often out of context that people have forgotten that it is simply an an abbreviation for the actual text of the First Amendment. The First Amendment states:
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.
In simple terms, the purpose of the First Amendment is to restrict the government from stopping people from speaking or assembling etc. “Freedom of speech” or to “peaceably… assemble” (as written in the First Amendment) is not the freedom to say whatever whenever wherever. Instead, it is the freedom to say whatever whenever wherever without government censorship. The First Amendment only protects people from the government.
Trump’s rights or the rights of some of his supporters may have been violated in Chicago, but it was not their First Amendment rights which were violated because the government did not attempt to restrict or censor his speech or his rally. This situation is reminiscent of the Phil Robertson controversy where A&E censored Robertson because of his views on homosexuality. Many conservatives complained that Robertson’s First Amendment right to free speech had been violated despite the fact that the government was not involved in any way. Speech in a privately owned place may be suppressed by private individuals without violating the First Amendment. Likewise people may peaceably protest another peaceable public assembly without violating the First Amendment. Finally, even if the situation turns violent between the two groups, as it did in Chicago, no one’s First Amendment rights have been violated unless the government restricts those rights.