Skip Navigation

October 1

“When is one justified to break the law in a protest setting?”

This fairly simple sounding question actually raises a host of complex moral issues. Consider these questions: What is the difference between breaking the law (say, refusing to pay my taxes) because I would rather use that money to buy a new car vs. doing so because I believe that the government is using my money for immoral purposes? Suppose further that I wish to protest the government’s use of my tax dollars by blocking the entrance to the IRS building, so as to prevent government employees from doing the work of collecting taxes. Is that violation of the law justified? Imagine now that I choose instead to destroy government tax records, or to bomb the building—are these violations of the law justified? In short, what makes an act of civil disobedience different from simple disregard for the law? And under what circumstances is civil disobedience justifiable?

As a point of departure, let us assume that we are considering these questions in the context of a democratic society in which people elect their officials and have a voice in creating the laws by which they are governed. In a democracy we have a moral duty in general to obey the law or to attempt to change the laws we don’t like through the electoral process. Civil society would quickly disintegrate if we all chose simply to ignore those laws that we didn’t like. Moreover, we benefit from the stability that results when others follow the law; that benefit comes with the responsibility to further that stability by observing the law ourselves.

But a problem arises when a law strikes us as violating a moral principle and when it hasn’t been changed despite some significant efforts to do so. The protests of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. against the racist laws in the 60’s are a classic case in point. Then it appears that conscience requires us to violate the law. But this freedom to ignore the law is limited; it does not sanction wholesale disrespect for all laws. First, those who break the law in such circumstances must be prepared to pay the legal consequences for their deeds. By paying the fine or calmly submitting to arrest, people engaging in civil disobedience demonstrate that they do not spurn the law in general, only a particular law, to which they take exception. Moreover, this form of protest against an unjust law does not warrant violating a whole slew of other laws—destroying property or injuring innocent people, for example—for such acts go well beyond what is necessary to demonstrate one’s moral objection to the law in question. Indeed, such wanton disregard for other laws may undermine one’s claim to be taking the high moral ground.

These same considerations apply to other forms of social protest. Those who demonstrated in New York City at the time of the Republican National Convention, for example, were entirely justified in doing so, provided a) they were willing to go to jail if their protests violated the law, and b) they did not engage in extraneous illegal behavior that was not necessary to making their voices heard.

Civil disobedience, far from undermining the law, actually strengthens it when it is performed in a principled and disciplined way. It demonstrates that we can simultaneously recognize our obligation to be law-abiding and our obligation to challenge the law when it fails to meet certain moral standards. In doing so, people affirm that the law must ultimately strive to embody those standards, or risk losing our allegiance.

Louis Newman

Professor of Religion