Letter to the editor: Definition of civil disobedience?

Many readers will no doubt have heard of the despicable Shakespeare in the Park play, put on by New York City’s Public Theater, that depicts Donald Trump getting assassinated (in an “edgy” reframing of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar). There have been a couple of incidents recently with protesters rushing the stage and otherwise disrupting this play by shouting things like “liberal hate kills.” Several conservative commentators (Brian Kilmeade, Chris Stirewalt, etc.) have denounced these disruptions, calling for conservatives to behave with civility. I don’t know all of the details but am inclined mostly to agree with the disruptors and to believe that the conservative commentators are fundamentally missing the point. Here’s why.

Requoting from Breitbart, Kilmeade says “I don’t think it was right when the cast [of Hamilton] was yelling at Mike Pence. I don’t think it’s right when you see a lot of these guys screaming at Republicans. Just let them do Shakespeare in the Park. Do your display outside the actual play itself, and don’t interrupt the play. … I don’t think it’s right for the audience to rush the stage.”

Stirewalt sees those who disrupt this play as acting like “snowflakes.” He says, “…hey, people, in a free society, you will be offended. The government cannot infringe your speech, but you do not have a right to not be offended. So cut it out.”

The point such commentators are missing is that neither the play nor the protests against the play seem to have much if anything to do with free speech; they are acts of civil disobedience. The assassination play is testing how far one can push the boundaries of provocation and incitement, including a live simulation of the assassination of our president, without getting shut down. The protestors are responding with civil disobedience in disrupting the play, a play that is financed partially with public funds.

The various campus disturbances, such as those of the famous “snowflakes” at Berkeley and Mizzou, are different in that most of them are about opposition to free speech and/or free scientific inquiry. Instead of interrupting a play that celebrates the assassination of our president, they shut down discussion on topics like male-female wage gaps, racial inequality, foreign affairs, and environmental policy.

My suggestion for conservative commentators is that they try to separate these two issues. Civil disobedience and other time-tested tactics for political organizing can have their place. Getting yourself arrested by interrupting a play that jokingly simulates the assassination of a sitting president, well, this seems more like an act of civil disobedience than an attack on free speech.