This article provides a fresh interpretation of John Rawls's discussion of civil disobedience in A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press 1971). It focuses on an original feature in Rawls's analysis: civil disobedience as a form of speech deployed by a well-defined minority in an effort to correct an injustice perpetrated by a majority. For Rawls, civil disobedience as a speech function departs from the principle of protected free speech. Only certain expressions of civil disobedience are capable of producing genuine legal reform. Rawls gains new importance as part of a larger effort to understand and evaluate the outbreak of recent movements of mass dissent and protest from the Arab Spring to Ukraine to Hong Kong to the United States. A reconsideration of Rawls may be used to assess the likely success of these various expressions of dissent and protest.
Rawls's discussion of civil disobedience circumvents arguments in the legal literature that attempt to justify certain types of illegal activity with reference to moral conscience or natural law. Nevertheless, the focus on civil disobedience as speech encounters forms of coercive, resistant public opinion in the public sphere. Detailed, exemplary narratives by Martin Luther King and Norman Mailer on acts of civil disobedience illuminate forms of coercion that must be considered in extending and re-evaluating Rawls's original contributions.
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