Bear Spray and Speech | Medium

Washington, DC — January 6, 2021: Smoke rises after police used pepper-spray ball gun against Pro-Trump protesters rally around Capitol building before they breached it and overrun it

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Certainly, those who attacked the Capitol on January 6, 2021, had something to say. The exact content of their messages might have differed: some wanted to express their (mistaken) belief that the presidential election was fraudulent, others were simply angry that Donald Trump lost the election, and some were opportunists who used the false flag of a stolen election to spread fear and hate. Still, they all believed they were communicating something.

Those who ignore the messages of the individuals and groups who participated in the January 6 attacks do so at their peril. We cannot move past the current political and moral divisions in this country if we do not listen and hear the frustrations and fears of each of us, even those with whom we fiercely disagree. That, however, is not to say that the attackers can call upon the superpowers of the First Amendment to protect them from criminal prosecution.

Sometimes conduct serves as the medium for a message. Expressive intent can be found in many nonverbal forms. Dance communicates. Art communicates, even a raised fist communicates. But simply because an actor intends their conduct to communicate does not summon the power of the First Amendment to protect speech.

Ask David Paul O’Brien. Almost sixty years ago the young pacifist lit his draft card on fire to protest the Vietnam War. That certainly seems to be an innocent act of protest under today’s standards…Read More

Lynn Greenky is an Associate Teaching Professor at Syracuse University in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies. She teaches a beloved undergraduate course about the First Amendment. She is the author of When Freedom Speaks: The Boundaries and Boundlessness of the First Amendment. You can follow her on Instagram @LynnGreenky.

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