- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

On the first day of class at Catholic University, I hand out a single sheet of paper with the words from the single most important paragraph my novice journalism students need remember. It simply states: The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: "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 of the right of people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievance."

Free speech, a free press and the right to peaceably assemble are the bedrock fundamentals of a free society. So precious are these freedoms that the Founding Fathers named them first.

While journalism is the only profession protected by the Constitution because only an informed public can govern itself best, the people's right to peaceably assemble and protest is equally important.

The operative phrase word here, however, is "peaceably" protest. Teaching about the First Amendment brings to mind the anti-globalization protests to be held downtown this week as the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank get under way.

Having participated in and covered many a peaceful protest at the foot of the U.S. Capitol in my day, it became clear that if nothing else, these peoples' rallies serve a fundamental function espoused by the First Amendment the right of people to petition their government for redress.

The larger value of such protest as the 1963 March on Washington or even today's predictable, perennial marches, is often overlooked. Protests, such as those against the debatable policies of the IMF, provide the public with useful information, which they can accept or reject, but which contribute to the public discourse on what we value as Americans and how we want to evolve as a civilized society.

Who among us has not uttered the quintessential phrase "this is America" or "this is a free country" as a last resort in an argument not so much to defend what we are saying but simply our right to say it? Always, it is with those we disagree most, we should listen closer. The greater challenge is always to find compromise and conclusions as the authors of "The Elements of Journalism" argue.

To that end, the predominantly young protesters who will come to the capital of the free world this week should not be dissuaded or demonized, for they offer to teach us new lessons. And we must have people brave enough to speak truth to power for democracy to survive. Still, the IMF protesters also must be reminded that there is a proper way to make a point. For example, blocking traffic is not an advantageous avenue to take. Their warranted conversation could get overshadowed by the unwarranted confusion.

While most protest organizers aim to push the people and the powers that be out of their comfort zones, if the protesters are destructive and disrespectful of the very people they are trying most to reach, the most salient points of their protest will be lost.

Mobilization for Global Justice organizers like Soren Ambrose, to whom I spoke, note that activists are "working in solidarity to end the institutions' imposition of economic politics that benefit multinational corporations and investors at the expense of the impoverished majorities in borrowing countries."

Further, they state in their written material that "all will be participating in the range of activities including nonviolent direct actions, demonstrations, teach-ins, vigils and debates." Notice the main organizers are promoting "nonviolent" activities. The Herculean task for these credible anti-globalization organizations will be to keep the anarchist activists or extremists among them bent on creating havoc in check. An awful lot of self-policing must take place.

As for law-enforcement officials here, all manner of protests, parades and rallies are nothing new. At full-force strength (and then some), the police ought to be able to maintain order as they have in the past without resorting to scaring the local work force into staying home.

The young IMF protesters or so-called "anti-capitalist anarchists" of today are nowhere near as vitriolic or violent as some predecessors.

Labor organizer Lucy E. Parson, a fiery journalist and free-speech advocate at the turn of the 20th century, once told a huge Chicago crowd that "a stick of dynamite is the only good thing for a capitalist." Mrs. Parsons worked alongside her husband, Albert, and other Haymarket Martyrs (who were eventually hanged) as they protested and literally fought to force the establishment of an eight-hour workday for working-class people that is still the law in the United States but not in most Third World countries that IMF protesters are lobbying for today.

Living and working in the nation's capital at times like these when protesters of all stripes make our life unpredictable and inconvenient is the price we pay for living in a prosperous country where democracy depends on a free press, free speech and the right of the people to peaceably assemble to petition the government (and others) for redress.


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