anti-government protest OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Why Freedom of Assembly Still Matters

For all of the talk nowadays about the decline and fall of democracy, not nearly enough attention has been given to attacks on the right to assemble and protest in streets and public squares. In fact, protests are essential to the democratic experience and can never be replaced by online activism, much less voting.

PRINCETON – It is now common knowledge that many democracies around the world are under pressure. But mounting threats to a particularly important democratic right have not received nearly enough attention. Through various means, governments are making it harder for citizens to assemble and protest.

New restrictions on the right to assemble often come with innocuous-sounding justifications such as “public safety.” In the United States, the Trump administration has asserted a prerogative to recover cleaning fees after demonstrations, effectively allowing the government to charge protesters for exercising their constitutional right. And in an even more blatant effort to curtail public dissent, the administration has tried to bar assemblies from 80% of the sidewalks around the White House.

Similarly, in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán recently had legislation passed which makes it more difficult to demonstrate near private residences and national monuments, citing the potential of protests to “disturb the ordinary flow of traffic.” The authorities also want to ban demonstrations on state occasions. With vague justifications, the government can now make street demonstrations virtually impossible.

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