Not Your Grandmother’s Free Speech

Civil Liberties, First Amendment, Political Viewpoint

By: guest blogger Tara Lane Bowman

protestsProtest placards have come a long way since the days when signs beseeched readers to elect a candidate in an upcoming election.

In the past, these signs and slogans were direct. For example, “I Like Ike” which began as a grassroots movement to draft Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for president, sought to draw a contrast between Eisenhower and his opponent, Adlai Stevenson.

Those three simple words worked. After successfully leading American troops fighting against Nazis in the 1940s, Mr. Eisenhower went on to become America’s 34th commander-in-chief.

The act of carrying a sign is a First Amendment right that engages any literate bystander. It would be enough to carry a message that states exactly what it is that a protester stands for or against. However, the Women’s Marches show that modern protests require more than physical presence and traditional signs of dissent.

Historically, images from the earlier, successful American women’s suffrage movement show banners and pins with the words, “We Were Voters Out West! Why Deny Our Rights Out East?” and “Votes For Women”. Civil rights messages from the 1960s took the same approach. “We March for Effective Civil Rights Laws NOW” and “I Am a Man” signs were as serious as they were necessary.

postersExpressing dissent today, however, is a new game with new rules. Are there still earnest signs with direct messages? Of course. But they are edged out of the frame as wittier descendants of first-generation posters step into the limelight.

At the first Women’s March on January 21, 2017, civilian paparazzi gleefully uploaded pictures of innovative posters to social media. Facebook newsfeeds flooded with users’ favorites. Signs like, “We Are The Granddaughters Of The Witches You Could Not Burn” and “A Good Planet Is Hard To Find” left readers to make historic and literary connections. (The first is a quote from Tish Thawer about historic and contemporary punishments meted out to alleged witches, and the second is a variant on the title of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find). More examples from the first march are one Google search away in lists and, predictably, on Pinterest.

It cannot be ignored: A new era of protests has begun. Today, instead of simply announcing a cause, protest signs are more likely to reference cultural signifiers, like the boards quoting the hit musical, Hamilton. Rather than name one’s favored political candidate, signs make a not-so-subtle dig at an opponent. The “We Shall Overcomb” signs are a two-fer: They hint at Mr. Trump’s unique hairstyle and take a page from the famous folk and civil rights song, “We Shall Overcome.” Creativity matters, and protesters know it.

By the time the second annual Women’s March arrived, demonstrators were even better prepared. Participants knew the new rule: Investing time in a memorable sign was time well spent.

Thus, it is no surprise that before the third weekend of January 2018 had come to a close, media already declared “Women Take to Streets Around the World in Second Day of Marches (and Great Signs)” and “Signs for the 2018 Women’s March Prove The Movement Is Here To Stay.” Cosmopolitan Magazine shared their votes for the “73 best” signs and Vogue chimed in with their own favorites.

This signals what protesters know: Demonstrations themselves are not the whole story. There is a new generation of placards and signs, of paper and cardboard. These send as strong a message as the numbers of citizens who turned out to protest. Free speech is not just protected. It is sharper, funnier, and pithier than ever.


Tara Lane BowmanTara Lane is a University of North Texas MLIS student and 1A defender. Find her on Twitter @yaybooksyay for talk on books, coffee, and the First Amendment.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.