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Civil disobedience


Civil disobedience

Mahatma Gandhi employed civil disobedience during the Indian independence movement.

Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, or commands of a government, or of an occupying international power. Civil disobedience is sometimes, though not always,[1][2] defined as being nonviolent resistance.


  • Overview 1
  • Etymology 2
  • Theories 3
    • Violent vs. nonviolent 3.1
    • Revolutionary vs. non-revolutionary 3.2
    • Collective vs. solitary 3.3
  • Techniques 4
    • Choice of specific act 4.1
    • Cooperation with authorities 4.2
    • Choice of plea 4.3
  • Legal implications of civil disobedience 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


One of its earliest massive implementations was brought about by Egyptians against the British occupation in Orange Revolution[6] in Ukraine, among other various movements worldwide.

One of the oldest depictions of civil disobedience is in Sophocles' play Antigone, in which Antigone, one of the daughters of former King of Thebes, Oedipus, defies Creon, the current King of Thebes, who is trying to stop her from giving her brother Polynices a proper burial. She gives a stirring speech in which she tells him that she must obey her conscience rather than human law. She is not at all afraid of the death he threatens her with (and eventually carries out), but she is afraid of how her conscience will smite her if she does not do this.[7]

Following the Peterloo massacre of 1819, poet Percy Shelley wrote the political poem The Mask of Anarchy later that year, that begins with the images of what he thought to be the unjust forms of authority of his time—and then imagines the stirrings of a new form of social action. It is perhaps the first modern statement of the principle of nonviolent protest.[8] A version was taken up by the author Henry David Thoreau in his essay Civil Disobedience, and later by Gandhi in his doctrine of Satyagraha.[8] Gandhi's Satyagraha was partially influenced and inspired by Shelley's nonviolence in protest and political action.[9] In particular, it is known that Gandhi would often quote Shelley's Masque of Anarchy to vast audiences during the campaign for a free India.[8][10]

Thoreau's 1848 essay Civil Disobedience, originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government", has had a wide influence on many later practitioners of civil disobedience. The driving idea behind the essay is that citizens are morally responsible for their support of aggressors, even when such support is required by law. In the essay, Thoreau explained his reasons for having refused to pay taxes as an act of protest against slavery and against the Mexican-American War. He writes, "If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man's shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, 'I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico; — see if I would go'; and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute."

By the 1850s, a range of minority groups in the United States--blacks, Jews, Seventh Day Baptists, Catholics, antiprohibitionists, racial egalitarians, and others--employed civil disobedience to combat a range of legal measures and public practices that to them promoted ethnic, religious, and racial discrimination. Public and typically peaceful resistance to public power would remain an integral tactic in modern American minority-rights politics.[11]


Henry David Thoreau's classic essay Civil Disobedience inspired Martin Luther King and many other activists.

Thoreau's 1849 essay "Resistance to Civil Government" was eventually renamed "Essay on Civil Disobedience." After his landmark lectures were published in 1866, the term began to appear in numerous sermons and lectures relating to slavery and the war in Mexico.[12][13][14][15] Thus, by the time Thoreau's lectures were first published under the title "Civil Disobedience," in 1866, four years after his death, the term had achieved fairly widespread usage.

It has been argued that the term "civil disobedience" has always suffered from ambiguity and in modern times, become utterly debased. Marshall Cohen notes, "It has been used to describe everything from bringing a test-case in the federal courts to taking aim at a federal official. Indeed, for Vice President Agnew it has become a code-word describing the activities of muggers, arsonists, draft evaders, campaign hecklers, campus militants, anti-war demonstrators, juvenile delinquents and political assassins."[16]

LeGrande writes that "the formulation of a single all-encompassing definition of the term is extremely difficult, if not impossible. In reviewing the voluminous literature on the subject, the student of civil disobedience rapidly finds himself surrounded by a maze of semantical problems and grammatical niceties. Like Alice in Wonderland, he often finds that specific terminology has no more (or no less) meaning than the individual orator intends it to have." He encourages a distinction between lawful protest demonstration, nonviolent civil disobedience, and violent civil disobedience.[17]

In a letter to P.K.Rao, dated September 10, 1935, Gandhi disputes that his idea of civil disobedience was derived from the writings of Thoreau:[18]


In seeking an active form of civil disobedience, one may choose to deliberately break certain laws, such as by forming a peaceful blockade or occupying a facility illegally, though sometimes violence has been known to occur. Often there is an expectation to be attacked or even beaten by the authorities. Protesters often undergo training in advance on how to react to arrest or to attack.

Mahatma Gandhi outlined several rules for civil resisters (or satyagrahi) in the time when he was leading India in the struggle for Independence from the British Empire. For instance, they were to express no anger, never retaliate, submit to the opponent's orders and assaults, submit to arrest by the authorities, surrender personal property when confiscated by the authorities but refuse to surrender property held in trust, refrain from swearing and insults (which are contrary to ahimsa), refrain from saluting the Union flag, and protect officials from insults and assaults even at the risk of the resister's own life.

Civil disobedience is usually defined as pertaining to a citizen's relation to the state and its laws, as distinguished from a constitutional impasse in which two public agencies, especially two equally sovereign branches of government, conflict. For instance, if the head of government of a country were to refuse to enforce a decision of that country's highest court, it would not be civil disobedience, since the head of government would be acting in her or his capacity as public official rather than private citizen.[19]

Ronald Dworkin held that there are three types of civil disobedience:

  • "Integrity-based" civil disobedience occurs when a citizen disobeys a law she or he feels is immoral, as in the case of northerners disobeying the fugitive slave laws by refusing to turn over escaped slaves to authorities.
  • "Justice-based" civil disobedience occurs when a citizen disobeys laws in order to lay claim to some right denied to her or him, as when blacks illegally protested during the Civil Rights Movement.
  • "Policy-based" civil disobedience occurs when a person breaks the law in order to change a policy (s)he believes is dangerously wrong.[20]

Some theories of civil disobedience hold that civil disobedience is only justified against governmental entities. Brownlee argues that disobedience in opposition to the decisions of non-governmental agencies such as

  • - Henry David Thoreau's complete essay with audioCivil Disobedience
  • Civil Disobedience entry by Kimberley Brownlee in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • "Civil Disobedience" by Peter Suber, originally in Christopher B. Gray (ed.), Philosophy of Law: An Encyclopedia, Garland Pub. Co, 1999, II.110-113.

External links

  • Lewis Perry, Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.

Further reading

  1. ^ Violent Civil Disobedience and Willingness to Accept Punishment 8 (2), Essays in Philosophy, June 2007 
  2. ^ J Morreall (1976), "The justifiability of violent civil disobedience", Canadian Journal of Philosophy (Canadian Journal of Philosophy) 6 (1): 35–47,  
  3. ^ Zunes, Stephen (1999:42), Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective, Blackwell Publishing 
  4. ^ Michael Lerner, Tikkun reader 
  5. ^ "Nonviolent Struggle and the Revolution in East Germany". Archived from the original on 2013-10-19. 
  6. ^ "The Orange Revolution". Time Magazine. 12 December 2004. Retrieved 30 April 2010. 
  7. ^ Sophocle's Antigone, Project Gutenberg, F. Storr translation, 1912, Harvard University Press
  8. ^ a b c [1]
  9. ^ Thomas Weber, "Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor," Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 28–29.
  10. ^ Thomas Weber, "Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor," Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 28.
  11. ^ Volk, Kyle G. (2014). Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.
  12. ^ The Gospel Applied to the Fugitive Slave Law [1850]: A Sermon, by mayur (1851)
  13. ^ "The Higher Law," in Its Application to the Fugitive Slave Bill:... by John Newell and John Chase Lord (1851)
  14. ^ The Limits of Civil Disobedience: A Sermon..., by Nathaniel Hall (1851)
  15. ^ The Duty and Limitations of Civil Disobedience: A Discourse, by Samuel Colcord Bartlett (1853)
  16. ^ Marshall Cohen (Spring 1969), Civil Disobedience in a Constitutional Democracy 10 (2), The Massachusetts Review, pp. 211–226 
  17. ^ J. L. LeGrande (Sep 1967), "Nonviolent Civil Disobedience and Police Enforcement Policy", The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science (Northwestern University) 58 (3): 393–404,  
  18. ^ Letter to P.K. Rao, Servants of India Society, September 10, 1935, Letter quoted in Louis Fischer's, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, Part I, Chapter 11, pp. 87-88.
  19. ^ a b Rex Martin (Jan 1970), Civil Disobedience 80 (2), Ethics, pp. 123–139 
  20. ^ Ken Kress and Scott W. Anderson (Spring 1989), Dworkin in Transition 37 (2), The American Journal of Comparative Law, pp. 337–351 
  21. ^ a b c Kimberley Brownlee (9 November 2006), "The communicative aspects of civil disobedience and lawful punishment", Criminal Law and Philosophy (Criminal Law and Philosophy) 1 (2): 179,  
  22. ^ Stephen Ellmann; Luban, David (Jan 1990), "Lawyering for Justice in a Flawed Democracy", Columbia Law Review (Columbia Law Review) 90 (1): 116–190,  
  23. ^ A Primer for Prospective Jurors, Fully Informed Jury Association 
  24. ^ Magonet, Jonathan (1992) Bible Lives (London: SCM), 8
  25. ^ Bay, Christian, Civil Disobedience II, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, pp. 473–486 
  26. ^ Stuart M. Brown, Jr., Civil Disobedience 58 (22), The Journal of Philosophy 
  27. ^ H. J. McCloskey (Jun 1980), "Conscientious Disobedience of the Law: Its Necessity, Justification, and Problems to Which it Gives Rise", Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research) 40 (4): 536–557,  
  28. ^ Davis D. Joyce, Howard Zinn: A Radical American Vision (Prometheus, 2003), 102-103. Joyce notes that Disobedience and Democracy sold 75,000 copies in the late 1960s and was Zinn's best-selling book prior to A People's History of the United States
  29. ^ Howard Zinn, Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order (South End Press edition, 2002), 39-41
  30. ^ Zinn, Disobedience, 47
  31. ^ Harry Prosch (Apr 1967), Toward an Ethics of Civil Disobedience 77 (3), Ethics, pp. 176–192 
  32. ^ a b Hugo A. Bedau (October 12, 1961), "On Civil Disobedience", The Journal of Philosophy (The Journal of Philosophy) 58 (21): 653–665,  
  33. ^ a b Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience.
  34. ^ P Herngren (1993), Path of Resistance, The Practice of Civil Disobedience 
  35. ^ Gross, Robert A. (October 2005), Quiet War With The State; Henry David Thoreau and Civil Disobedience., The Yale Review, pp. 1–17 
  36. ^ Brown case e-mails investigated, Union-Leader, June 21, 2007 
  37. ^ Clark, Dick (April 22, 2008), Civil Disobedience and the Libertarian Division of Labor, 
  38. ^ Jeffrey S. Juris (2005), "The New Digital Media and Activist Networking within Anti-Corporate Globalization Movements", Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science) 597 (Cultural Production in a Digital Age): 189–208,  
  39. ^ Laura Moth, Today's Zaman, 19 June 2013, A standing dilemma in Taksim
  40. ^ Watts v. Indiana, 338 U.S. 49 (1949)
  41. ^ John Griffiths and Richard E. Ayres (Dec 1967), "A Postscript to the Miranda Project: Interrogation of Draft Protestors", The Yale Law Journal 77 (2): 300–319,  
  42. ^ Rules for Engaging in Civil Disobedience, Free State Project 
  43. ^ Civil Disobedience Training, ACT-UP, 2003 
  44. ^ Hurst, John (1978), A-plant protesters being freed, Los Angeles Times 
  45. ^ a b National Lawyers Guild, LA Chapter, Questions and Answers about Civil Disobedience and the Legal Process 
  46. ^ Howard Zinn, Disobedience and Disorder: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order, cited in Paul F. Power (Mar 1970), On Civil Disobedience in Recent American Democratic Thought 64 (1), The American Political Science Review, p. 40 
  47. ^ Mirelle Cohen (Oct 2007), "The Camden 28 (review)", Teaching Sociology 35 (4): 391–392,  
  48. ^ Nick Gier (January 15, 2006), Three Principles of Civil Disobedience: Thoreau, Gandhi, and King, Lewiston Morning Tribune 
  49. ^ Steven E. Barkan (Oct 1979), Strategic, Tactical and Organizational Dilemmas of the Protest Movement against Nuclear Power 27 (1), Social Problems, pp. 19–37 
  50. ^ Thomas Morawetz (Summer 1986), Reconstructing the Criminal Defenses: The Significance of Justification 77 (2), The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-), pp. 277–307 
  51. ^ Arthur W. Munk (Sep 1971), Civil Disobedience: Conscience, Tactics, and the Law 397, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, pp. 211–212 
  52. ^ Robert T. Hall (Jan 1971), Legal Toleration of Civil Disobedience 81 (2), Ethics, pp. 128–142 
  53. ^ Michael Bayles (Sep 1970), The Justifiability of Civil Disobedience 24 (1), The Review of Metaphysics, pp. 3–20 
  54. ^ Leslie J. Macfarlane (Oct 1968), Justifying Political Disobedience 79 (1), Ethics, pp. 24–55 
  55. ^ U.S. v. Schoon, 939 F2d 826 (July 29, 1991).
  56. ^ Hughes, Graham (1968), Civil Disobedience and the Political Question Doctrine 43, N.Y.U. L. Rev., p. 1 
  57. ^ Steven M. Bauer and Peter J. Eckerstrom (May 1987), The State Made Me Do It: The Applicability of the Necessity Defense to Civil Disobedience 39 (5), Stanford Law Review, pp. 1173–1200 
  58. ^ James L. Cavallaro, Jr. (Jan 1993), The Demise of the Political Necessity Defense: Indirect Civil Disobedience and United States v. Schoon 81 (1), California Law Review, pp. 351–385 
  59. ^ Robert Surbrug, Beyond Vietnam: The Politics of Protest in Massachusetts, 1974-1990 
  60. ^
  61. ^ 18 U.S.C. § 3553
  62. ^ 3. The Basic Approach (Policy Statement), 2009 Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual 
  63. ^ Judgments - Sepet (FC) and Another (FC) (Appellants) v. Secretary of State for the Home Department (Respondent), 20 March 2003 





By country


See also

Along with giving the offender his "just deserts", achieving crime control via incapacitation and deterrence is a major goal of criminal punishment.[61][62] Brownee argues, "Bringing in deterrence at the level of justification detracts from the law’s engagement in a moral dialogue with the offender as a rational person because it focuses attention on the threat of punishment and not the moral reasons to follow this law."[21] Leonard Hubert Hoffmann writes, "In deciding whether or not to impose punishment, the most important consideration would be whether it would do more harm than good. This means that the objector has no right not to be punished. It is a matter for the state (including the judges) to decide on utilitarian grounds whether to do so or not."[63]

Courts have distinguished between two types of civil disobedience: "Indirect civil disobedience involves violating a law which is not, itself, the object of protest, whereas direct civil disobedience involves protesting the existence of a particular law by breaking that law."[55] During the Vietnam War, courts typically refused to excuse the perpetrators of illegal protests from punishment on the basis of their challenging the legality of the Vietnam War; the courts ruled it was a political question.[56] The necessity defense has sometimes been used as a shadow defense by civil disobedients to deny guilt without denouncing their politically motivated acts, and to present their political beliefs in the courtroom.[57] However, court cases such as U.S. v. Schoon have greatly curtailed the availability of the political necessity defense.[58] Likewise, when Carter Wentworth was charged for his role in the Clamshell Alliance's 1977 illegal occupation of the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant, the judge instructed the jury to disregard his competing harms defense, and he was found guilty.[59] Fully Informed Jury Association activists have sometimes handed out educational leaflets inside courthouses despite admonitions not to; according to FIJA, many of them have escaped prosecution because "prosecutors have reasoned (correctly) that if they arrest fully informed jury leafleters, the leaflets will have to be given to the leafleter's own jury as evidence."[60]

One theory is that, while disobedience may be helpful, any great amount of it would undermine the law by encouraging general disobedience which is neither conscientious nor of social benefit. Therefore, conscientious lawbreakers must be punished.[52] Michael Bayles argues that if a person violates a law in order to create a test case as to the constitutionality of a law, and then wins his case, then that act did not constitute civil disobedience.[53] It has also been argued that breaking the law for self-gratification, as in the case of a homosexual or cannabis user who does not direct his act at securing the repeal of amendment of the law, is not civil disobedience.[54] Likewise, a protestor who attempts to escape punishment by committing the crime covertly and avoiding attribution, or by denying having committed the crime, or by fleeing the jurisdiction, is generally viewed as not being a civil disobedient.

Governments have generally not recognized the legitimacy of civil disobedience or viewed political objectives as an excuse for breaking the law. Specifically, the law usually distinguishes between criminal motive and criminal intent; the offender's motives or purposes may be admirable and praiseworthy, but his intent may still be criminal.[50] Hence the saying that "if there is any possible justification of civil disobedience it must come from outside the legal system."[51]

Barkan writes that if defendants plead not guilty, "they must decide whether their primary goal will be to win an acquittal and avoid imprisonment or a fine, or to use the proceedings as a forum to inform the jury and the public of the political circumstances surrounding the case and their reasons for breaking the law via civil disobedience." A technical defense may enhance the chances for acquittal but make for more boring proceedings and reduced press coverage. During the Vietnam War era, the Chicago Eight used a political defense, while Benjamin Spock used a technical defense.[49] In countries such as the United States whose laws guarantee the right to a jury trial but do not excuse lawbreaking for political purposes, some civil disobedients seek jury nullification. Over the years, this has been made more difficult by court decisions such as Sparf v. United States, which held that the judge need not inform jurors of their nullification prerogative, and United States v. Dougherty, which held that the judge need not allow defendants to openly seek jury nullification.

Legal implications of civil disobedience

Sometimes the prosecution proposes a plea bargain to civil disobedients, as in the case of the Camden 28, in which the defendants were offered an opportunity to plead guilty to one misdemeanor count and receive no jail time.[47] In some mass arrest situations, the activists decide to use solidarity tactics to secure the same plea bargain for everyone.[45] But some activists have opted to enter a blind plea, pleading guilty without any plea agreement in place. Mohandas Gandhi pleaded guilty and told the court, "I am here to . . . submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen."[48]

Howard Zinn writes, "There may be many times when protesters choose to go to jail, as a way of continuing their protest, as a way of reminding their countrymen of injustice. But that is different than the notion that they must go to jail as part of a rule connected with civil disobedience. The key point is that the spirit of protest should be maintained all the way, whether it is done by remaining in jail, or by evading it. To accept jail penitently as an accession to 'the rules' is to switch suddenly to a spirit of subservience, to demean the seriousness of the protest...In particular, the neo-conservative insistence on a guilty plea should be eliminated."[46]

When the Committee for Non-Violent Action sponsored a protest in August 1957, at the Camp Mercury nuclear test site near Las Vegas, Nevada, 13 of the protesters attempted to enter the test site knowing that they faced arrest. At a pre-arranged announced time, one at a time they stepped across the "line" and were immediately arrested. They were put on a bus and taken to the Nye County seat of Tonopah, Nevada, and arraigned for trial before the local Justice of the Peace, that afternoon. A well known civil rights attorney, Francis Heisler, had volunteered to defend the arrested persons, advising them to plead "nolo contendere", as an alternative to pleading either guilty or not-guilty. The arrested persons were found "guilty," nevertheless, and given suspended sentences, conditional on their not reentering the test site grounds.

An important decision for civil disobedients is whether or not to plead guilty. There is much debate on this point, as some believe that it is a civil disobedient's duty to submit to the punishment prescribed by law, while others believe that defending oneself in court will increase the possibility of changing the unjust law.[42] It has also been argued that either choice is compatible with the spirit of civil disobedience. ACT-UP's Civil Disobedience Training handbook states that a civil disobedient who pleads guilty is essentially stating, "Yes, I committed the act of which you accuse me. I don't deny it; in fact, I am proud of it. I feel I did the right thing by violating this particular law; I am guilty as charged," but that pleading not guilty sends a message of, "Guilt implies wrong-doing. I feel I have done no wrong. I may have violated some specific laws, but I am guilty of doing no wrong. I therefore plead not guilty." A plea of no contest is sometimes regarded as a compromise between the two.[43] One defendant accused of illegally protesting nuclear power, when asked to enter his plea, stated, "I plead for the beauty that surrounds us";[44] this is known as a "creative plea," and will usually be interpreted as a plea of not guilty.[45]

Choice of plea

Some civil disobedients feel it is incumbent upon them to accept punishment because of their belief in the validity of the social contract, which is held to bind all to obey the laws that a government meeting certain standards of legitimacy has established, or else suffer the penalties set out in the law. Other civil disobedients who favor the existence of government still don't believe in the legitimacy of their particular government, or don't believe in the legitimacy of a particular law it has enacted. And still other civil disobedients, being anarchists, don't believe in the legitimacy of any government, and therefore see no need to accept punishment for a violation of criminal law that does not infringe the rights of others.

Many of the same decisions and principles that apply in other criminal investigations and arrests arise also in civil disobedience cases. For example, the suspect may need to decide whether or not to grant a consent search of his property, and whether or not to talk to police officers. It is generally agreed within the legal community,[40] and is often believed within the activist community, that a suspect's talking to criminal investigators can serve no useful purpose, and may be harmful. However, some civil disobedients have nonetheless found it hard to resist responding to investigators' questions, sometimes due to a lack of understanding of the legal ramifications, or due to a fear of seeming rude.[41] Also, some civil disobedients seek to use the arrest as an opportunity to make an impression on the officers. Thoreau wrote, "My civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the very man I have to deal with--for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel--and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government. How shall he ever know well that he is and does as an officer of the government, or as a man, until he is obliged to consider whether he will treat me, his neighbor, for whom he has respect, as a neighbor and well-disposed man, or as a maniac and disturber of the peace, and see if he can get over this obstruction to his neighborliness without a ruder and more impetuous thought or speech corresponding with his action."[33]

Some disciplines of civil disobedience hold that the protestor must submit to arrest and cooperate with the authorities. Others advocate falling limp or resisting arrest, especially when it will hinder the police from effectively responding to a mass protest.

A police officer speaks with a demonstrator at a union picket, explaining that she will be arrested if she does not leave the street. The demonstrator was arrested moments later.

Cooperation with authorities

Dilemma actions are designed to create a "response dilemma" for public authorities "by forcing them to either concede some public space to protesters or make themselves look absurd or heavy-handed by acting against the protest."[39]

Electronic civil disobedience can include web site defacements, redirects, denial-of-service attacks, information theft and data leaks, illegal web site parodies, virtual sit-ins, and virtual sabotage. It is distinct from other kinds of hacktivism in that the perpetrator openly reveals his identity. Virtual actions rarely succeed in completely shutting down their targets, but they often generate significant media attention.[38]

Some forms of civil disobedience, such as GCSB Waihopai by padlocking the gates and using sickles to deflate one of the large domes covering two satellite dishes.

More generally, protesters of particular victimless crimes often see fit to openly commit that crime. Laws against public nudity, for instance, have been protested by going naked in public, and laws against cannabis consumption have been protested by openly possessing it and using it at cannabis rallies.[37]

In cases where the criminalized behavior is FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. Threatening government officials is another classic way of expressing defiance toward the government and unwillingness to stand for its policies. For example, Joseph Haas was arrested for allegedly sending an email to the Lebanon, New Hampshire city councilors stating, "Wise up or die."[36]

Civil disobedients have chosen a variety of different illegal acts. Bedau writes, "There is a whole class of acts, undertaken in the name of civil disobedience, which, even if they were widely practiced, would in themselves constitute hardly more than a nuisance (e.g. trespassing at a nuclear-missile installation)...Such acts are often just a harassment and, at least to the bystander, somewhat inane...The remoteness of the connection between the disobedient act and the objectionable law lays such acts open to the charge of ineffectiveness and absurdity." Bedau also notes, though, that the very harmlessness of such entirely symbolic illegal protests toward public policy goals may serve a propaganda purpose.[32] Some civil disobedients, such as the proprietors of illegal medical cannabis dispensaries and Voice in the Wilderness, which brought medicine to Iraq without the permission of the U.S. Government, directly achieve a desired social goal (such as the provision of medication to the sick) while openly breaking the law. Julia Butterfly Hill lived in Luna, a 180-foot (55 m)-tall, 600-year-old California Redwood tree for 738 days, successfully preventing it from being cut down.

Choice of specific act


The earliest recorded incidents of collective civil disobedience took place during the Roman Empire. Unarmed Jews gathered in the streets to prevent the installation of pagan images in the Temple in Jerusalem. In modern times, some activists who commit civil disobedience as a group collectively refuse to sign bail until certain demands are met, such as favorable bail conditions, or the release of all the activists. This is a form of jail solidarity.[34] There have also been many instances of solitary civil disobedience, such as that committed by Thoreau, but these sometimes go unnoticed. Thoreau, at the time of his arrest, was not yet a well-known author, and his arrest was not covered in any newspapers in the days, weeks and months after it happened. The tax collector who arrested him rose to higher political office, and Thoreau's essay was not published until after the end of the Mexican War.[35]

Collective vs. solitary

Non-revolutionary civil disobedience is a simple disobedience of laws on the grounds that they are judged "wrong" by an individual conscience, or as part of an effort to render certain laws ineffective, to cause their repeal, or to exert pressure to get one's political wishes on some other issue. Revolutionary civil disobedience is more of an active attempt to overthrow a government.[31] Gandhi's acts have been described as revolutionary civil disobedience.[19] It has been claimed that the Hungarians under Ferenc Deák directed revolutionary civil disobedience against the Austrian government.[32] Thoreau also wrote of civil disobedience accomplishing "peaceable revolution."[33]

Revolutionary vs. non-revolutionary

Zinn rejects any “easy and righteous dismissal of violence,” noting that Henry Thoreau, the popularizer of the term civil disobedience, approved of the armed insurrection of John Brown. He also notes that some major civil disobedience campaigns which have been classified as nonviolent, such as the Birmingham campaign, have actually included elements of violence.[30]

in the inevitable tension accompanying the transition from a violent world to a nonviolent one, the choice of means will almost never be pure, and will involve such complexities that the simple distinction between violence and nonviolence does not suffice as a guide...the very acts with which we seek to do good cannot escape the imperfections of the world we are trying to change.[29]

There have been debates as to whether civil disobedience must necessarily be non-violent. Black's Law Dictionary includes nonviolence in its definition of civil disobedience. Christian Bay's encyclopedia article states that civil disobedience requires "carefully chosen and legitimate means," but holds that they do not have to be nonviolent.[25] It has been argued that, while both civil disobedience and civil rebellion are justified by appeal to constitutional defects, rebellion is much more destructive; therefore, the defects justifying rebellion must be much more serious than those justifying disobedience, and if one cannot justify civil rebellion, then one cannot justify a civil disobedients' use of force and violence and refusal to submit to arrest. Civil disobedients' refraining from violence is also said to help preserve society's tolerance of civil disobedience.[26] But McCloskey argues that "if violent, intimidatory, coercive disobedience is more effective, it is, other things being equal, more justified than less effective, nonviolent disobedience."[27] In his best-selling Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order,[28] Howard Zinn takes a similar position; Zinn states that while the goals of civil disobedience are generally nonviolent,

Violent vs. nonviolent

It is usually recognized that lawbreaking, if it is not done publicly, at least must be publicly announced in order to constitute civil disobedience. But Stephen Eilmann argues that if it is necessary to disobey rules that conflict with morality, we might ask why disobedience should take the form of public civil disobedience rather than simply covert lawbreaking. If a lawyer wishes to help a client overcome legal obstacles to securing her or his natural rights, he might, for instance, find that assisting in fabricating evidence or committing perjury is more effective than open disobedience. This assumes that common morality does not have a prohibition on deceit in such situations.[22] The Fully Informed Jury Association's publication "A Primer for Prospective Jurors" notes, "Think of the dilemma faced by German citizens when Hitler's secret police demanded to know if they were hiding a Jew in their house."[23] By this definition, civil disobedience could be traced back to the Book of Exodus, where Shiphrah and Puah refused a direct order of Pharaoh but misrepresented how they did it. (Exodus 1: 15-19)[24]


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