The first ten Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are the Bill of Rights.  They spell out the limits to government power. Within the first amendment, there are three clauses that address dissent.

First, is that Congress shall make no law   “abridging the freedom of speech”.  2nd is the “right of the people peaceably to assemble.”  The 3rd is the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” 

People can exercise their right of dissent individually by:

  • Calling, emailing or tweeting an elected official to express their views.
  • Speaking at a public hearing.
  • Writing a letter to the editor of a local newspaper.
  • Picketing in front of a government building.
  • Posting an opinion piece (article, essay, research, music video, cartoon) on a supportive website, zine or blog.
  • To name a few…

People can also express their dissent through civil society organizations such as clubs, fraternities, associations, as well as parent, neighborhood and special interest groups by:

  • Inviting guest speakers to meetings.
  • Decrying the issue in association publications
  • Sending a signed petition of the members to elected officials.
  • Passing a resolution by the membership calling for action.
  • Authorizing the association’s legislative representative to lobby elected officials.
  • Instituting a boycott of a service or product. (Bus Boycott, Montgomery, Alabama 1955)
  • Participating in Non-violent protests.
  • To name a few…

The right to assemble enables people who share your opinions to come together peaceably and speak truth to power.  Often after spokespeople of a group contact elected officials, there is a brief waiting period.  Spokespeople are told that they should be patient while they look into the issues to determine the facts and that they will get back to them.  After what seems like more than enough time (weeks or months),  spokespeople often re-contact the individual to get an update.  Insufficient responses, obfuscation, denial or patronizing often leads the people to utilize other methods including direct action.

Taken together these sanction the people’s right to dissent. 

One specific kind of action is a protest.  It can be a response to policies, institutional actions, or expressions of intent.  A demonstration calls public attention to the situation. is used to express through an action.  When the protest becomes part of a systematic set of actions or campaign it can lead to civil resistance.  Those who choose to engage in these actions often encounter public policies limiting the time, place and method of expression which may be delineated in a permitting process.  

 Direct Action: From:  IWW  A workers Guide to Direct Action

  • Slow down at work
  • Work to Rule… Following the rules to the letter
  • Good Work Strike… providing better service at the expense of the company.
  • Sit down strike
  • Selective Strikes
  • Whistle Blowing
  • Sick In and Sick outs
  • Dual Power (Ignoring the Boss)  
  • Monkey wrenching
  • Solidarity --- Associated actions by constituencies and organizations supporting your struggle.

 Legal Action:  Suing the institution for impacts such as discriminating against federally protected groups, damaging the environment or putting the public at health and safety risks.

 Some more noteworthy Class Action Lawsuits have included

  • PG & E  -- Hinkley groundwater contamination
  • Eveleth Mines -- sexual harassment
  • City of Flint Michigan -- water contamination
  • American Home Products --Fen-Phen diet pills linked to heart valve damage.
  • Louisiana Pacific -- Inner seal siding failures.
  • Metropolitan Police Department and U.S. Park --Police using unconstitutional tactics against inaugural protests.

Civil Disobedience is a specific kind of dissent.  It means….Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power.

Nonviolent resistance (NVR or nonviolent action) is the practice of achieving goals such as social change through symbolic protests, civil disobedience, economic or political noncooperation, satyagraha, or other methods, while being nonviolent.

Suppression of Dissent

Sometimes there are counter protests by people with opposing views.  But more often there are methods of suppression employed by law enforcement which have become more militarized through the use of noise cannons, rubber bullets, pepper spray, physical attacks and arrests.  There are also legal actions such as SLAPP suits. (Strategic Lawsuit against public participation). Or the individual or the corporation by pursue a Defamation Lawsuit claiming that such claims damage the individuals reputation.

Nonetheless, people have the right to speak their mind, with a position that is contrary to public sentiment or the governments stated policies.  People can take advantage of their freedom of speech in the town square, social media, newspaper, entertainment, literature, private places and many others.  It allows people to speak at public hearings and to share dissenting opinions without “fear of reprisal”.  The law guarantees everyone that right. 

Gene Sharp, in Power and Struggle, The Politics of Nonviolent Action.  In this publication the author global struggles for human and workers rights.  He gives many examples of individuals using various means to resist policies and practices. 

  • Columbian women started a sex strike in September 2006 called La huelga de las piernas cruzadas ("the strike of crossed legs") in protest of gang violence.
  • Nigerian oil workers protested working conditions by dropping their tools into the ocean.

Petitioning the government for a redress of grievances can include anything from appearing at a public hearing protesting a higher tax rate, asking public works to fill pot holes in the roads, or asking the government to respond to a lack of food safety.

Since the 1980’s the U.S. government has systematically privatized long established government services such as road maintenance, prisons, food safety, industrial manufacturing monitoring, etc.  Throughout this period, civil society associations have revealed how these private businesses have disenfranchised millions of people. Dissent has become more necessary.

In a well-known letter to Arnold Ruge, Karl Marx wrote: "if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be."[3]

Though institutions believe that policies and laws grant them the public’s consent, more often than not the public is not directly consulted.  They assume that the have the people’s consent.    Consent is believed to be given to civil servants and elected officials who have been voted into office, heard no measureable dissent at public hearings  and had their departmental budgets approved.

In a book by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman entitled Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media they proposes that the mass communication media of the U.S. "are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function, by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion", by means of the propaganda model of communication.