Defending Protestors?

After telling the story in Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor of being surrounded by a mob of angry protestors on the streets of Nashville, leave it to some in the media to totally miss the point! By relying upon a quote without context, the Huffington Post, Washington Post, and others reported it as complaining when, in fact, I was defending the protestors' right to protest! [To clarify, there is a difference between protesting (speaking one's mind) and rioting (tearing things up). I defended the right to protest, not riot.]

But I've got to tip my hat to David Plazas of The Tennessean, who picked up on the mistake and offered to let me set the record straight with an opinion piece. It ran state-wide on Sunday, September 13, 2020. Here it is in its entirety:

Defending Protestors?

By Senator Kerry Roberts

Imagine walking downtown on a beautiful summer evening to meet some friends for dinner. Suddenly, an angry mob of protestors chases you down, surrounds you, and starts screaming at you! Because you are accompanying an elderly individual, you can only walk so fast. The protestors keep you surrounded, shouting every step of the way. After a few minutes that seem like hours, you reach your destination and are finally able to escape the mob.

If that happened to you, would you defend the right of the protestors to do that?

That did happen to me and I shared that experience in both the Senate Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor. But not, as some in the national media reported, in order for me to complain about noise or the act of protesting. It is just the opposite: I defended the right of the protestors to do what they did.

At the very heart of our Republic is our constitution’s First Amendment, that protects the right of people to say what they want to say. Even if we are the target – even if we do not agree.

It is easy to champion someone’s First Amendment right when we are on their side. However, when we disagree, or when we are the object of protestors, we often become strangely silent about their rights. It is understandably difficult to defend someone yelling at you when you are surrounded by a mob.

After defending the protestors’ right to free speech, I pointed out one of life’s great lessons: if the goal is for meaningful dialogue to take place, shouting is not the way to achieve that goal.

In everyday life, there is nothing controversial about that statement. Most of us learn at an early age that shouting does not tend to accomplish our goals. Shouting will get us heard, but is anyone listening? Is a dialogue taking place? Are meaningful thoughts exchanged? Are ideas discussed? Are problems identified? Do solutions emerge? If not, the shouting is just noise; noise that is often tuned out, discarded, or ignored. 

The right to speak does not guarantee that someone is listening.

What does it take for one person to listen to another? We tend to listen to people we respect. My comments were part of a larger conversation involving a bill being presented by one of my Democrat colleagues. The presenting Senator and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Even so, we decided early on not to let our ideological differences prevent us from being friends; we respect each other. Consequently, we listen to each other and have intellectually honest conversations. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t. But our doors and our minds are open to each other.

Being surrounded by a mob was a tense and threatening situation. Even so, I absolutely defend a protestor’s right to free speech. That said, how a protestor uses that right will largely determine whether anyone is listening. Any voice loud enough can be heard, but isn’t the goal of protesting to have someone listen?

Senator Kerry Roberts (R – Springfield) chairs the Senate Committee for Government Operations, which provides legislative oversight of the State of Tennessee’s departments, agencies, boards, commissions, and councils.