Rude protests are American tradition


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland complain about Americans loudly protesting at health care reform town hall meetings organized by members of Congress. In a commentary for USA Today, they wrote that “Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American.”

Putting aside the substance of the health care debate, perhaps the speaker and the majority leader ought to refresh themselves on the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall pass no law … abridging the freedom of speech … or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The Declaration of Independence declares as a self-evident truth that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and the Founding Fathers clearly understood these First Amendment rights to be indispensible to liberty and the functioning of a free republic. This is most important when the government seems intent on a course of action in direct contravention to the opinion of a large proportion of the people.

In any event, the Founding Fathers would likely be appalled by the notion that vigorous protests — yes, even those that are rude, obnoxious and interfere with the carefully orchestrated plans of government officials — is “un-American.”

Founding Fathers Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, Joseph Warren and others of the Boston resistance did much more than disrupt a meeting or two. They organized their own protests, condemned the actions of governors, interfered with tax collectors and tossed tea into the Boston waters.

They resorted to these tactics, in part, because the British refused to listen to the colonists. In fact, Benjamin Franklin accurately described the British response to colonial petitions for redress: “the Parliament flout their claims, reject their petitions, refuse to suffer the reading of them, and treat the petitioners with the utmost contempt.”

Faced with such intransigence, the Founders eventually fought the Revolution against British encroachments of the unalienable rights of the people and explained in the Declaration of Independence that resistance to oppression was not only a right, but a duty of Americans.

Unlike relatively unimportant tea and stamp taxes, health care is a huge issue. The health care proposals concern about one sixth of our economy and affect the medical care of all Americans. No wonder some citizens are passionate. That they have expressed their passion and concern in less than a cordial manner hardly makes them un-American.

Indeed, America has a long and proud tradition of citizen activism — much of it less than polite — to effectuate political change. Abolitionists, suffragists and many a war protestor engaged in tactics that struck many as strident, rude and unaccommodating. However, we are a much better people and country because of their contributions.

As we move forward in these most uncertain of times, let us try to be certain about respecting the deep American tradition of protecting the unalienable rights of individuals to speak, write, gather and petition their government.

Michael Warren is an Oakland County Circuit Court judge and author of “America’s Survival Guide.” E-mail letters to

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