Letter - "Rightness" not always right

The Regional

August 10, 2011

McHale, Fleming and others' protest of Hamburger Stand may have been legal - but...

The protesters who attended Mayor Ken Hewitt's private residence on Saturday July 23rd took pains to demonstrate the legality of their protest. As one member of the group express it - "[we] actually acknowledge" trespass laws. These statement, among others, were meant to demonstrate the justness and, therefore, righteousness of their actions; they were stand-ins for the implied message that, 'because what these protesters were doing was legal, it was therefore also right'. But was it right to attend the Mayor's home to stage such a protest?

As a lecturer in Ethics and practicing lawyer, I often come across those who confuse 'legality' with 'justice' - but Justice and lawfulness are not interchangeable concepts. As just one example, no one would deny that protesting is lawful, but as recent incidents in the United States have shown - where some protesters have attended the funerals of dead soldiers to shout that death is "payback" for immorality - law cannot be a stand-in for justice. Or, to be more direct - what is legal can still be wrong.

Of course - the obvious question is, "what is wrong with protesting at the home of the Mayor? One could argue that the Mayor is the Mayor and so ought to receive these protests without complaint. Perhaps. But, can anyone deny that his wife of child isn't the Mayor,, or that this is their private residence and sanctuary? Further, can anyone deny that their neighbours' peace, privacy, and quiet enjoyment of a Saturday were equally at stage? Can anyone deny that the Mayor is a decent person (as are, I assume, these protesters), doing his best for the good of his County - and that even a Mayor ought to be able to expect some solitude, privacy, and dignity in his own home and neighbourhood? Can anyone deny that there are public places and buildings more intimately tied to the Mayor's Office and official duties - and that these are more appropriate places to voice discontent?

Of course, one might further argue that the residents of Caledonia have endured many inconveniences (or worse) and so it is only fair that the new Mayor endure his fair share. Perhaps. But does one person' loss of an eye legitimize the taking of another's? Does the strength of these protesters' (perhaps legitimate) anger and discontent negate their obligations to treat Mr. Hewitt, his family, neighbours, and the wider public, with equal concern and respect? Can one legitimize his or her unethical behaviour with the moral equivalent of "feel my pain"?

The fact is that we don't go to the homes of people we disagree with professionally to voice our discontent; lawyers don't advise clients to attend the opposing side's home to argue, and; no one goes to the chef's home to say last night's meal didn't meet expectations. In going to the Hewitt's private residence these protesters failed to pay heed to their wider obligations - mistaking lawfulness for rightfulness. In so doing, these protesters let their fervency for 'the cause' cloud their judgment of right and wrong. In letting the law be their guide, they were misled.

T. David Marshall