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First Amendment protections don’t extend to D.C. rioters, local political experts say

Updated: Jan. 8, 2021 at 6:03 AM EST
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - Less than a week into the new year, 2021 is already making the history books after rioters breached the nation’s Capitol Wednesday afternoon. It happened while Congress was in the process of certifying the results of November’s presidential election.

What was supposed to be a typical Electoral College count for Congress turned into a day of havoc after numerous people unlawfully enter the Capitol grounds. Some damaged property, forcing the Senate and House of Representatives to evacuate.

Five people, including a U.S. Capitol officer, died in the riot. Several people were injured.

Despite the riots, Congress convened Wednesday night and counted the Electoral College votes in a final step towards President-Elect Joe Biden becoming the 46th president of the United States.

Numerous arrests have been made and more are expected, as law enforcement continues to search for additional parties.

Some people posted on WMBF News social media platforms stating protests are protected by the First Amendment. They also feel that includes those who stormed into the halls of Congress.

Political experts in our area want to make one thing clear: the Constitution doesn’t protect unlawful actions, including the riots in Washington, D.C.

Professors said the First Amendment protects numerous freedoms, including the right to peaceful assembly and protest. But the key word in that statement is ‘peaceful.’ They said images from the U.S. Capitol being seen around the world do not fall under the First Amendment, as they are not peaceful actions.

Richard Almeida is the associate professor of political science at Francis Marion University. He says the word peaceful does not come to mind when he thinks about what happened at the U.S. Capitol.

He says people need to understand that some people unlawfully stormed into the U.S. Capitol while members of Congress were working, before creating pure havoc. Based on those actions, Almeida says the events are worthy of being called a riot.

“Two phrases that I would use to describe yesterday’s [Wednesday’s] events are riot and armed protest,” Almeida said. “Two words I wouldn’t use are coup and insurrection. Those things are different. Yesterday [Wednesday] was definitely a riot, disgusting, deplorable, terrifying, all those things legitimately. Not a coup attempt, or armed insurrection or treason.”

Almeida says he saw nothing peaceful about the events.

“What I saw didn’t look super peaceful,” Almeida said. “Were most of the people who assembled in Washington, D.C. yesterday [Wednesday] violent extremists? I certainly don’t think so. Does it take a lot to get a crowd to do things that an individual members would not normally do? No, I don’t think it takes a great deal.”

Dr. Wendy Weinhold is the assistant professor of journalism at Coastal Carolina University. She says people need to understand what protections are provided by the First Amendment, because it’s often misunderstood.

“What we don’t understand is what the First Amendment really does is protect us from government infringement of those freedoms,” Weinhold said. “So I can’t walk into Target and curse and protest when they try to throw me out and say ‘First Amendment, freedom of speech.’ Target is a private business and is not an entity of the government. Target can completely throw me out for being a bad customer. On the other hand, the government, once I have uttered my free speech, once I have organized my protest, it can not stop me from speaking freely or it will lose or be challenged in the courts. That’s why the First Amendment really protects us.”

Weinhold says there are consequence for actions that aren’t considered to be protected by the First Amendment because the behaviors are unlawful. She says people need to remember the First Amendment doesn’t protect anyone from non-peaceful protest or speech that incites violence. That goes for citizens, state leaders, and President Donald Trump.

Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg announced that Trump’s Facebook page will temporarily be banned. He cited concerns about the riots and posts made on the account leading up to what happened at the capitol.

Some people felt Zuckerberg’s actions violated the president’s First Amendment freedoms. Weinhold says those theories are not accurate.

“Donald Trump can’t argue that Facebook is taking away its freedom of speech,” Weinhold said. “Trump has no freedom of speech protections on Facebook unless the government comes in and says Facebook has to stop publishing the things Trump says.”

She says people that breached the U.S. Capitol used social media platforms to put their activities on full display. She says social media platforms have a responsibility to hold them all accountable for the entire world to see.

“All of the people who broke into the capitol and took the photos and posted on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram looking so [content] at endangering our democracy, they were creating social media content,” Weinhold said. “It is absolutely essential the social media platforms that people used to demonstrate, express and show us their criminal actions do shut down.”

Dr. Holley Tankersley is the professor of political science and associate provost at Coastal Carolina University. She says there’s a definite line when peaceful protest and speech is no longer considered legal and safe.

“Protests as ugly and as angry as it may become is not necessarily criminal until you break a law,” Tankersley said. “I do think we saw that yesterday [Wednesday].”

Some members of Congress are trying to remove Trump from office either through impeachment or the 25th Amendment.

Invoking the 25th Amendment would allow Vice President Mike Pence to temporarily become president. That would require support from Pence and a majority of the cabinet.

Congress members say they’re also considering impeachment.

Tankersley says an impeachment may not be the best option to try and exercise before the inauguration date, which is less than two weeks away.

“I think it would be unwise for the House of Representatives to impeach a president if they aren’t sure the Senate would convict and therefore actually remove the president,” Tankersey said. “If you have another impeachment without a removal, like the first Trump impeachment, I think it does damage to that power of the Congress. I don’t think they have time to build the kind of case to ensure removal by the Senate. I don’t think it could be done by inauguration day for sure.”

President-Elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated on Jan. 20.

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