By CHRIS XIE, political columnist
The fundamental American virtue that sets us apart from other nations is the freedom of speech and expression. But while this right is allegedly guaranteed to all citizens by the First Amendment, we often find it violated by government intervention in times of crisis. However, it is in these times that we need these freedoms the most; government intervention that jeopardizes our First Amendment rights can never be justified, even in the face of a threat to public safety. In fact, public safety must, occasionally, be threatened in order to elicit a response to our grievances; the Baltimore and Ferguson riots exemplify how public disorder can inspire change. More importantly, if our freedom of expression is to be restricted because of public unrest, it is no longer a freedom but rather a privilege of convenience.
In 1775, our forefathers rose up against the British empire to break away from their oppressive reign. They fought and bled in the long years of the American Revolutionary War to mold the thirteen colonies into a country where each citizen would have undeniable natural rights. Among these rights is the right to free expression, an inherent right that no government should ever possess the ability to restrict. Even in situations where public safety is threatened, our right to free expression must remain completely unconditional. Otherwise, our freedom becomes a wavering privilege available to us only when it is convenient for the government.
In addition, public disorder, often cited as a cause of prohibitive government intervention, is actually an integral part of our freedom of expression. The recent riots in Baltimore and Ferguson present clear examples of this idea. African-Americans in both cities are oppressed by a broken infrastructure and a detestable amount of police brutality. As victims of a corrupt education system, many of the people in the predominantly black neighborhoods lack a high school diploma, let alone a college education. In Baltimore, the unemployment rate for young black men is 37%, compared to the current national rate of 8%. With every card stacked against them, black residents in both cities have their hands tied. In spite of the need for change, policymakers have never enforced effective reform.
In 2014, after the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, the residents of Ferguson finally rose up in protest, weary of the constant police brutality against African-Americans in the area. At first, these peaceful protests received cursory attention from the media. But then, angry protesters sparked riots, igniting brutal clashes with police and leaving buildings aflame. The resulting widespread civil unrest and 24/7 news coverage quickly brought national attention to the numerous problems plaguing the city. In the aftermath, a dialogue was opened between Ferguson citizens and their authorities for the first time. In response to fierce criticism of their policies, the Ferguson Police Department even required that their police officers wear body cameras, and arrangements were made to rebuild buildings that had been burned down in the riots.
A similar situation arose in Baltimore in April 2015, only a year later. When tensions rose to a dangerous level after the police shooting of Freddie Gray, thousands of African-Americans rose up in protest. Some of them resorted to violence—they destroyed police cars and burned local buildings. As with Ferguson, the entire nation then became abruptly immersed in the situation in Baltimore. As a result, the Justice Department began an investigation into the Baltimore Police. Shortly after the riots, previously rejected city proposals on police body cameras were put into consideration.
It is clear that the Baltimore and Ferguson protests—most notably the riots—sparked a wave of national scrutiny regarding the critical, tumultuous situations in both cities. The public disorder resulting from both of the protests attracted attention to the plethora of grievances of African-Americans that would have otherwise been ignored. Ferguson and Baltimore are both prime examples of cities where people are harvesting public unrest to exercise their freedom of expression. Restrictive government intervention in these cases would only inhibit our right to express ourselves, rather than protect the public.
As rising high school students who will soon enter the larger world, we must understand the importance of keeping our rights unconditional. We must recognize the limits and extents of our freedoms, for we are the next generation of leaders, policymakers, and social activists who will either sustain our free society or allow it to fall under the power of an oppressive regime.