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Free Speech: What’s the catch?

Free Speech: What’s the catch?

On March 12, 1990, over one thousand activists descended on to Washington, D.C. and gathered in front of the Capitol building.  About 60 disabled activists proceeded to crawl up the stairs to the Capitol building in what became known as the Capitol Crawl.  Four months later, on July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the ADA, was signed into law.  On April 5, 1977, over 100 disabled activists and non-disabled supporters staged a sit-in at the Federal Building to demand recognition of disabled civil rights.  The sit-in lasted approximately 30 days, with food and medical support coming from outside groups.  The activists were protesting the 4-year delay in signing section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act into law.  On February 13, 2018, disabled activists and their allies returned to the Capitol building.  Members of ADAPT, some who were involved in the Capitol Crawl, flooded the hearing room where arguments for and against HR620, a bill that advocates believed would weaken the ADA, were being heard.  Many activists were dragged out or arrested.  On February 15, 2018, HR620 passed in the House of Representatives.

The purpose of these demonstrations? To protest against the inequality and inequity faced by the disabled population.  Participants in these and other marches and demonstrations exercised a right protected in the Bill of Rights – freedoms of speech and assembly.  However, a concern amongst disabled activists and protestors is the accessibility of the events themselves.  While the three examples demonstrations mentioned above saw a large number of disabled participants, their involvement was in spite of any restrictions or regulations implemented by the government that infringe on the First Amendment rights of the disabled population.

In 2017, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) reported that nearly 41 million people in the United States have a disability.  Since the ACS only reported “uninstitutionalized” disabled people, this number is likely much higher.  As noted by Ann Coulter, there are no asterisks in the First Amendment.  However, for the over 12% of the population that is disabled, the time, place and manner restrictions that do not account for the disabled population place a bold asterisk on the First Amendment, that is, the government must not violate a person’s freedom of speech, unless that person is disabled.   If law and policy makers consider these seven principles, it is likely that the 12% of the population that are identified as disabled may be better able to exercise their freedoms of speech and assembly, as opposed to relegated to platforms where they are less able to spread their message or consume the message of others.

Simmons Free Speech and Disability (PDF).


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