Do we have a right to violate the law?

A couple of years ago, I picked up an album called Ghost of the Salt Water Machines by a band called Architect. At the end of a track called The Dog And Pony Show, there’s a spoken word piece that I find interesting (the link goes right to the spoken word part for those who don’t want to hear a punk/hardcore song).

I’ve tried to contact the band a few times about this, to see who it is speaking (it might be a journalist/author named Christian Parenti), but so far I haven’t heard back from them in any way, not even after I had the owner of their record company try and get in touch with them. I’m curious to know who it is and when he said this, and see if there’s more to the speech, as it appears that some editing may have been done. I doubt anything pertinent was taken out, as his main argument appears cogent. I’ve transcribed it:

I can’t really refute what he’s saying, and in fact think he has a point. The thing is, it seems to me that this has to remain an unspoken right, because how could we ever enshrine it without quickly descending into madness and chaos?

I’m curious to see if others think the idea has any merit, or is it just semantic nonsense (or some other kind of nonsense)?

Do we have the right to violate the law?

I think King said it best in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

" In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."

It is, in fact, Christian Parenti. It’s called “Violating the Law” and is apparently from a recording called Taking Liberties: Prisons, Policing and Surveillance in an Age of Crisis from 2003.

I don’t think you have the right to break a law, even an unjust one, that would be silly. However, there is and should be discretion on whether or not to arrest and try a criminal. Unless I’m misinterpreting the meaning of “right to break the law,” of course, I took it to mean “whelp, we can’t arrest or try you because you have that right to break the rules!”

The way it was explained to me is that you are free to break the rules as long as you are willing to accept the consequences. Plus I think there’s a place for civil disobedience as a form of protest, so long as the civil disobedience is limited to violating the law being protested against. Violating law and order in general isn’t really civil disobedience, at least not the kind consistent with this nation’s traditions.

Most civil disobedience, tho, is about violating a law different than the one being protested against. Sit down strikes weren’t/aren’t about protesting being made to stand up, or about protesting not being allowed inside a building.

I don’t think thats what Mr. Parenti was meaning, really. I think that takes it a step too far, to where there’s no law at all, and I don’t get the sense that that’s what he means.

Yeah, but they were usually at least related to the place in question, and much civil disobedience was about violating the law that the people objected to. I think that’s the most effective kind. For example, what’s the best way to protest the individual mandate if you don’t like it? Spray paint a car, or just flout it and challenge the government to do something about it?

Well, those aren’t the only options available, are they?

For one thing, spray painting a car (presumably one that you don’t own yourself) would be a violent act (destruction/damage to property), and Mr. Parenti specifically says “I’m not talking necessarily about violence but I’m talking about breaking the law.”

For another, how would a single person not obeying the law call attention to the cause? If one person breaks the law in solitude and then, after they are arrested they try and claim they were protesting something, that’s going to ring hollow with both society and the justice system, isn’t it?

I mean, occupying a space or building could be done, too, couldn’t it? Or marching without a permit. Or boarding public transportation and refusing to get off.

Surely there are ways to break the law that can and have been used for civil disobedience that are not actually related to the object of the protest, but being out in public doing so is one of the major components of civil disobedience.

In fact, it might be the single most important factor, since one person breaking a law in solitude is just one person breaking the law. But take that law breaking out into public areas, and even a single person can be engaging in civil disobedience.

Yeah, but what good does that do? the civil disobedience has to be at least related to what you are protesting against. For example, protesting against Wall Street by crapping on a police car isn’t really making any kind of point. But squatting on bank property, while not directly violating the laws being protested against, at least draws attention to the fact that you are angry at the banks.

The kind of general mayhem that often ensues with some protest movements isn’t really civil disobedience, so much as blind anger, lashing out.

I’m sorry, but I disagree. Folks weren’t protesting not being able to use the bridge in Selma, Alabama; they were as protesting against black people being denied the right to vote.

What they did was effective because it was out in public and thus called attention to the cause.

I agree that your example there is a good one, but notice that now you’re talking about breaking a law different than the one being protested against, which was what you initially were arguing was necessary. Further, squatting on bank property is a public action, not an example of a person violating the law in solitude, as you wrote in your previous post.

You could prolly save us both some time if you just realized that you agreed with what I wrote and acknowledged it.

Do you think “blind anger, lashing out” is a fair characterization of the Boston Tea Party?

Here’s how I put it once; would you hand over Anne Frank to the Nazis to be killed? If the answer is “no”, then you agree that there are times when you should break the law, and we are only arguing about when.

The protest itself was civil disobedience since the authorities tried to break it up and they knew it was probably coming. However, as originally conceived, it was just a protest for voting rights, not civil disobedience.

Violating the law in solitude is legitimate civil disobedience, IMO. If anything it’s a lot braver, since you don’t have compatriots backing you up.

A good example of civil disobedience without a protest movement, although it’s not an individual case, is the Jews of Quebec:

Banned from importing kosher wine, they smuggle it in in direct violation of the law.

It was in response to the Tea Act. Doing what they did in response to the Stamp Act would have been less sensible.

Civil disobedience is a very important thing. The ability to see and act appropriate when a lawa is simply wrong is important. Sure I will follow the law that says drive on the right side of the road, but I would NOT follow a law that says “report other citizens to the police”

:slight_smile: the question is where you draw that line

I don’t think that you have a legal right to break the law, but you might have a ethical obligation to yourself and others to do so. If a situation can exist where you would feel justified to ask others to skirt the law on your behalf, then to not do the same for another in that same situation would be hypocrisy.

Which ‘law’ should you abide?

The constitutional “all men are created equal”? Or the one requiring you to sit at the back of the bus?

Bad law should get dragged into the light and changed. What constitutes ‘bad law’ changes as society changes.

Seems like things are working as they should, to me.

A right? No. A duty and responsibility? Yes.


But the question isn’t “should you break the law”, the question is, “Do you have a right to break the law?”

If we had the “right” to break the law, could we then break the law. Kinda renders it an impossibility.