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The U.S. Bill of Rights includes ten amendments, and the first one guarantees the freedom of religion, speech, press and the right to assemble peaceably. The last one is important in the context of the establishment of democracy changes and the freedom to express own social and political position by any American citizen. The meaning of the right to assemble peaceably varies in different parts of society and at different historical times. The paper provides historical retrospection on the implementation of the right to peaceful assembly and provides an opinion that nowadays there is a minor necessity of that right.
The history of civil rights protecting people from the abuse of governors began at the time of colonial America when in 1620 an agreement on the formation of civil society was signed. It was established between the first pilgrim settlers in Massachusetts on the board of “Mayflower”. In 1639, they and a group of activists supporting the idea of authority from the bottom proclaimed the basic code in Connecticut, which meant that people should define frameworks of governors’ authority. However, the modern history of human rights begins with the declaration of American independence and the approval of the state and federal Bill of Rights. As in other areas of political philosophy, ideas came to America from the Old World, but only in the USA, they were converted into public and implemented first. This implementation was more influential than in any other place (especially in the area of civil rights), but with one tragic exception, namely, the slavery of the African Americans. It was a fault of American liberalism of Thomas Jefferson existing until the present day.
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In some cases of the American history, people used to think that this concept meant that an assembly turned around exceptional expressive acts of separate people (like a protest or demonstration). The issue of the acknowledgement of the right to peaceful assembly caused an opinion about the absence of any necessity to secure it legally. Moreover, it was an absurd to spend any time and resources of the Congress on this discussion, because it is natural right and does not require fixing. It is impossible to perceive the freedom of speech and expression without an actual assembly of people. It means that the process of preparing the text of the document securing the right to peaceful assembly had taken a long time until in September 24, 1789, when the Senate adopted an Amendment in its final version. The further ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791 simultaneously proclaimed, “Congress shall make no law respecting […] the right of the people peaceably to assemble” (McClellan 12). In this case, the right to assemble peaceably goes out of older frameworks.
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First, the challenge facing the right to peaceful assembly started when dissent appeared within increasing contradictions between Federalists and Republicans. A wave of congresses and meetings covered America, and people associated in groups (the largest one was founded in Philadelphia). However, Federalists did not approve this tendency and regularly published warnings about possible mass rebellions, and even the White House maintained an opinion that such uncontrolled unions promoted violent groups. When Federalists started to control the Senate, they judged independent organizations for things they did. The civil position had also some contradictions with newly created groups, and until the end of the 1800s, the majority of them had been dissolved.
Later, the functioning of the right to peaceful assembly was not successful because of a high rate of racial and gender discrimination. As a natural response to such injustice and increasing discrimination, victims and their supporters united into groups of abolitionists and suffragists. After that, the right to peaceful assembly became an indicator of the states’ policy and the country at all. An active position of abolitionists and suffragists gave them a legal opportunity to promote their ideas of the protection of rights (including labor) and implement them. However, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt forbade this right to Japanese Americans. The jury proclaimed that the application of this right was possible only on condition of a straight threat to social interests.
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Until the middle of the 1960s, single cases applying to the freedom of assembly were those that protected the rights of African Americans who took part in peaceful demonstrations for civil rights. By the end of 1960, the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly was limited to protests and demonstrations. In 1983, the court removed “remains of the freedom of assembly” in its decision in the case of Perry Education Association v. Perry Local Educators’ Association (Tedford and Herbeck 24). It says, “In view of the petitioner’s failure to establish even a substantial state interest that is advanced by the exclusive-access policy, the policy must be held to be constitutionally infirm” (Perry Education Association v. Perry Local Educators' Association, 1983). Beginning from this precedent, other cases could also be accepted and resolved without reference to the freedom of peaceful assembly.
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One of the significant cases happened in August 2010 in Bradford, when the Defense League (EDL) planned a protest. Soon, the organization named Unite Against Fascism also planned a demonstration, and local citizens were concerned that violent clashes that had happened at the previous EDL events would repeat without a guarantee and clear evidence that there was no danger. The West Yorkshire Police were obligated to protect the event. They “examined the human rights aspect of the situation and talked to local people, in particular the Muslim community, about the right to peaceful protest” (Equality and Human Rights Commission). Consequently, there were no preconditions for the police to forbid the protest, and citizens joined the police alternation to prevent the involvement of young people in criminal activities.
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Nowadays, the right to peaceable assembly has some modifications in a practical way of its usage. The government is allowed to prohibit associating in groups in case of evidence they promote or/and engage in illegal activities. The right to peaceful assembly forbids the government to demand the registration or disclosure of a list of members or to deny benefits “on the basis of an individual's current or past membership in a particular group” (Legal Information Institute). However, when the court considers that national interests in the disclosure of this information/registration prevail over the right, the government gets this exceptional permission. The Supreme Court jurisprudence united the right to peaceful assembly and the right to petition into one concept of the freedom of speech. However, since a petition and assembly have differences in scope, it is not correct to consider them the same. In practice, the right to peaceful assembly has become less important, because politics and the Congress treat petitions in a pro forma way. Thus, public protests have lost their leading means to express their position. Any private party can present a petition to the Clerk of the House, and after he enters it in the Journal, the government automatically becomes obligated to response.
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Hence, the history of the right to peaceful assembly as part of the U.S. Bill of Rights is long and complicated, being accepted differently by the opposite parts of society. Since the first movements for human rights and equality and until today, the necessity and view on the application of this right has been modified. However, this part of the Bill of Rights is valuable by its contribution to the establishment of democracy in the USA. Nowadays, there is a lower necessity of a peaceful assembly because of the modernized mechanism of a dialogue between the government and citizens.