ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — As protests continue over the death of Daniel Prude, the first amendment continues to be a topic of discussion. Freedom of speech and assembly in particular have been tested the past couple weeks.
Attorney Mike Burger said the Bill of Rights is at the core of constitutional rights given to each and every citizen of our country. But he said legally, these things can become murky.
Burger said exercising the rights protected under the first amendment is one of the few times citizen’s rights trump the government.
“When people assemble and they want to protest, particularly here in Rochester which has a long tradition of this sort of activity, the government needs to stand shoulder to shoulder with them and protect those rights,” said Burger.
However, he said there are circumstances where the government can override those rights but it needs ‘compelling interest’ to do so.
“It can’t sweep broadly and say, ‘well we don’t want any unrest so we’re gonna have a curfew and keep everyone inside,’ that wouldn’t be America anymore.”
Protesters have said the police are taking a more aggressive path when they could be taking a more peaceful one. Burger said it becomes a grey area when there’s violence on either side.
“From the police side they may not know where a water bottle comes from, they may find that after a few episodes of violence that the entire crowd being there is making it impossible to locate the people who are engaging in a crime. It becomes a difficult question how far should you go? It seems on the nights where there has been less police interaction there have been fewer claims of violence, but is that correlation or causation?”
He said they’re walking a fine line between security and freedom.
“If we’re all shopping in Wegmans and a few people engage in shoplifting, grabbing everyone in Wegmans or pepper spraying the entire store is probably not the right reaction to that, unless we all seem to be acting in concert to help the shoplifters.”
Burger said while the government has a responsibility to make sure the protests go smoothly, citizens have the right to free speech in many forms including yelling, screaming, and singing.