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Constitutional FAQ Answer #44

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Q44. "I am writing a paper in English about whether I think American citizens have the right to break the law. Does it doesn't it say in the Constitution that a citizen must abide by the state and federal laws?

A. I think to take the position that we have the right to ignore laws is tenuous at best. This is a nation of laws, starting with the Constitution. It is true that the Constitution itself is much more a restriction of governments than people, but I cannot see anywhere within that it even back handedly endorses the notion that laws may be disobeyed, without consequence. There is a presumed lawfulness of the citizenry - see the Constitutional Rights and Responsibilities Page.

This having been said, I think it is also reasonable to argue that if a law is invalid, it is also the responsibility of a citizen to change the law and, if necessary, disobey the law. Of course, since the constitutionality of a law is personal opinion at best (barring a court decision to the contrary), any citizen who breaks the law must be willing to accept the consequences of doing so. When marchers took to the streets in 1965 to protest for voting rights, Alabama law enforcement physically attacked the marchers under the pretense that the marching restricted the public's right to free mobility on the streets. The marchers were arrested, beaten, and subjected to attack dogs, tear gas, and water cannon. In the end, the courts ruled that the right to petition the government, even in large groups, was constitutionally protected. Such civil disobedience is often said to be an obligation of citizenship.


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