In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Chicago Eight (later Seven) Conspiracy trial, today’s topic for discussion, dissection and dissemination is “An Act for Preventing Tumults and Riotous Assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual Punishing the Rioters” aka The Riot Act.
In 1714, The Riot Act was signed, sealed and delivered by Parliament in response to a series of “many rebellious riots and tumults” following the Death of the Queen Anne, the last of the House of Stewart and the subsequent coronation of King George I who hailed from the House of Hanover. In Germany. He was German. Apparently, a big problem in 18th Century England. He who was of the Whig Party and not the Tories. Another big problem. Modernly, insert Labor for Whig Party and you get at least some of the political rivalry and narrative thereunder. Of course, without the Tower of London, the hangings and beheadings (for the most part) although Brexit is pretty funny to watch.
Once read out loud, the Riot Act allowed the representatives of the Crown to disperse and arrest any crowd over the size of 12 or more persons who did not vacate the premises within one hour under penalty of death. The proclamation read as follows:
“Our sovereign lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King.”
The first version of the Riot Act in the United States of America (this excludes colonial adaptations) was passed by Massachusetts in 1786 in response to Shays’ Rebellion. The rebellion was a rural, populist response by farmers to increased taxation and predatory debt collection practices initiated by big city Boston politicians, bankers and lenders. At the federal level, George Washington signed into law the Militia Act of 1792 with the subtitle of “An act to provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions.” Funny how it didn’t take long for supposed free speech loving Americans to enact laws against inciting riots. Congress shall make no law…
But in all fairness, inciting acts of violence and legitimate public discourse in opposition to the political status quo are two different horses of the same general color. Under current case law, I think it fair to say your First Amendment right to free speech does not include the right to incite imminent, lawless action virtually to cause damage to property and personal injury. Brandenberg v. Ohio 395 U.S. 444 (1969)
At the time of the trial for the Chicago, or Conspiracy Eight (then Seven), prohibitions against inciting riots were codified in federal law under 18 U.S. Code § 2101 – Riots, as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Under this Act, conspiracies amongst individuals crossing state lines for the purposes of inciting a riot were against the law. Of course, the government must prove the defendant crossed state lines with the premeditated intent to cause chaos, disruption and violence, you know, a riot. Usually, it is quite difficult to prove what someone was thinking at any given moment in time and citing the lack of email or tweet evidence although modernly you’d be surprised what some people nowadays put in electronic print, in social media, Facebook and Twitter and absent a hand-written “confession” letter (no word processors, neither) or even a wire-tapped phone conversation, predictably, the Chicago Seven trial went rather badly for the thought police. This despite everyone in the courtroom getting a free concert performance from Arlo Guthrie. But that’s another story along with additional info you may wish to read about in the Throwback Thursday section of the FREEP.
But for now, this is Tirade Tuesday and, accordingly, I’ll end with an admonition. For those of you who have never been “Read the Riot Act” you can now safely check that off your bucket list, figuratively and literally.