What is civil disobedience?

I have already blogged about the Aaron Swartz case and civil disobedience /pmr/2011/07/20/the-ethics-of-%E2%80%9Cstealing%E2%80%9D-scientific-articles-and-civil-disobedience/ . I expect to blog more as the case unfolds (assuming it is carried through) but this post id to clarify what I think are the prerequisites for CD if it becomes relevant in the area of scholarly publishing. First, read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_disobedience from which I quoted.

Civil disobedience is a very powerful tool but it must be used with thought, care and bravery to be effective. It is the deliberate breaking of a law, or regulation or practice on moral grounds (“conscience”), and not for personal gain. At such the motivation must be clear, and I believe, before the act. At present I am unclear in the Swartz case what the motivation was before the case and what will be presented in court. I cannot therefore label it as CD or not-CD, though his past actions were certainly not. Peter Suber has discussed CD (http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/writing/civ-dis.htm ) and has made it clear that he does not regard Swartz’s previous actions (“Guerilla OA”) as CD and from what Peter has written I agree completely (1. Suber, P. Guerilla OA. Open Access News. 21 August, 2008. http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/2008/09/guerilla-oa.html ). This does not mean I may not personally support Swartz (I have signed the petition). More on this later.

I am familiar with CD in the context of protesting for peace and the right not to fight and for countries not to possess weapons of mass destruction. I grew up in the shadow of UK conscription and was prepared to face a tribunal (and possible prison) and argue why I was not prepared to join the armed forces. In this I was following the example of people like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathleen_Lonsdale pre-eminent scientist (first female FRS) and Quaker peace campaigner:

Kathleen Lonsdale became a Quaker in 1935, simultaneously with her husband. Both of them were committed pacifists and were attracted to Quakerism in no small part for this reason. She served a month in Holloway prison during the Second World War because she refused to register for civil defence duties or pay a fine for refusing to register. At the annual meeting of the British Quakers in 1953 she delivered the keynote Swarthmore Lecture, under the title Removing the Causes of War. [my emphasis]

This action (refusing to take part in the war action) is perhaps more an act of conscience that CD but the effect is the same – prepared to suffer if necessary for clear principles. A similar action was http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Draft-card_burning where groups of individuals systematically burned their draft cards (the requirement to sign up for war duties):

Beginning in May 1964,[1][2] some activists burned their draft cards at antiwar rallies and demonstrations. By May 1965 it was happening with greater frequency. To limit this kind of protest,[3] in August 1965, the United States Congress enacted a law to broaden draft card violations to punish anyone who “knowingly destroys, knowingly mutilates” his draft card.[4] Subsequently, 46 men were indicted[5] for burning their draft cards at various rallies, and four major court cases were heard. One of them, United States v. O’Brien, was argued before the Supreme Court. The act of draft card burning was defended as a symbolic form of free speech, a constitutional right guaranteed by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court decided against the draft card burners; it determined that the federal law was justified and that it was unrelated to the freedom of speech. This outcome was criticized by legal experts.

This is clear civil disobedience – the preparedness to suffer for a clearly held view which is in apparent conflict with the law. Note that it is not always clear what the law is, and that cases involving CD may need to be resolved in high-profile cases. The resolution sometimes changes the status quo, sometimes upholds it.

I am more familiar with the acts of CD associated with nuclear weapons in the UK. I have protested at bases, but always within the law. However I have supported those who have deliberately challenged the law (this is not inconsistent). I have visited Greenham Common, and quote at length from http://www.greenhamwpc.org.uk/
Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp):

On the 5th September 1981, the Welsh group “Women for Life on Earth” arrived on Greenham Common, Berkshire, England. They marched from Cardiff with the intention of challenging, by debate, the decision to site 96 Cruise nuclear missiles there. On arrival they delivered a letter to the Base Commander which among other things stated ‘We fear for the future of all our children and for the future of the living world which is the basis of all life’.

This was the prime motivation – there was a secondary one in that common land had been appropriated for a nuclear missile base:

At a time when the USA and the USSR were competing for nuclear superiority in Europe, the Women’s Peace Camp on Greenham Common was seen as an edifying influence. The commitment to non-violence and non-alignment gave the protest an authority that was difficult to dismiss – journalists from almost every corner of the globe found their way to the camp and reported on the happenings and events taking place there.

The protest, committed to disrupting the exercises of the USAF, was highly effective. Nuclear convoys leaving the base to practice nuclear war, were blockaded, tracked to their practice area and disrupted.Taking non-violent direct action meant that women were arrested, taken to court and sent to prison.

And the camp finally achieved its objectives:

A number of initiatives were made by women in Court testing the legality of nuclear weapons. Also, challenges to the conduct and stewardship of the Ministry of Defence as landlords of Greenham Common. In 1992 Lord Taylor, Lord Chief Justice, delivering the Richard Dimbleby
Lecture for the BBC, referring to the Bylaws case ( won by Greenham women in the House of Lords in 1990) said ‘…it would be difficult to suggest a group whose cause and lifestyle were less likely to excite the sympathies and approval of five elderly judges. Yet it was five Law Lords who allowed the Appeal and held that the Minister had exceeded his powers in framing the byelaws so as to prevent access to common land’.

Here we see the power of nonviolent civil disobedience. The key included:

The conduct and integrity of the protest mounted by the Women’s Peace Camp was instrumental in the decision to remove the Cruise Missiles from Greenham Common. [my emphasis]

If it comes to the fact that civil disobedience appears inevitable (for whatever cause) then integrity of purpose and action is key.


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2 Responses to What is civil disobedience?

  1. Steve Hitchcock says:

    On Swartz’s motive, Ars Technica offers a possible clue, see the PACER example at the end of this article:

  2. Pingback: A commentary on Sci-Hub: 3/n Legal aspects – ContentMine

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