The contrast is striking: On May 28, Donald Trump demanded the First Amendment right of free speech for himself on privately owned social media, and then, four days later, declared war on the people, gathered on public property, as they sought, in the words of the amendment itself, “to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The right of assembly is an important First Amendment right, one treasured by the founding generation and the First Congress, which wrote the amendment, and one re-won two centuries later at great pain by the labor, civil-rights, and anti-war movements. The show of force that swept peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., last night was an assault—and perhaps only one of a series of assaults—on that right.
During the 18th century, the British crown looked with disfavor on what was then called “the people out of doors”—ordinary people assembled to discuss their grievances, or to ask their rulers to address them. If 12 or more subjects of the king assembled, any royal jack-in-office could “read them the riot act”:
Our sovereign lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King.
If the crowd did not disperse within an hour, the authorities could disperse them by force. Officials were granted immunity if any of the “rioters” were “killed, maimed or hurt.”