The local NBC News affiliate covered the ongoing story of the woman arrested for dancing, silently, at the Jefferson Memorial:
Also, two Jefferson scholars answer the question — what would Thomas Jefferson think ?
First from Professor Robert McDonald:
I’m surprised by [Professor Peter Onuf]’s take on this. He’s such a cool guy, I’m sort of surprised he wasn’t at the Dance Party. I’m guessing that the reporter may not have told him what actually transpired. For starters, it’s not clear that any laws were broken. And while Jefferson may have been “anal” about the enforcement of the law, he was emphatic that laws be just and focused on the protection of individual rights.
No doubt you’re familiar with Jefferson’s take on Shays’s Rebellion (see his letter to Madison, 30 Jan. 1787…). If even an armed uprising by people seeking to shirk their debts failed to upset him, then he’d have no problem with people dancing around his statue.
And then Professor David Meyer:
In his Notes on the State of Virginia (explaining why government had no authority over matters of conscience), Jefferson wrote: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. (But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”) Taken as general rule, of course, application of Jefferson’s principle amounts to Herbert Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom, or what modern libertarians call the no-harm principle: legitimate laws limit individuals’ freedom to act only in regard to actions that truly are injurious (in a direct way) to others (and more precisely, actions that abridge others’ rights.) (In this case, I’d say that a small group of people celebrating Jefferson’s birthday at the Jefferson Memorial (a public forum), causing no injury to any other person, did nothing in violation of any legitimate law. (And, obviously, general laws criminalizing “disorderly conduct” are notoriously vague and subjective and easily abused by the police.))
Jefferson reiterated this principle (and essentially his support for the libertarian view of limited government) in a report he prepared late in life as chairman of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, when he described as one of the basic principles of government: “a sound spirit of legislation, which, banishing all arbitrary and unnecessary restraint on individual action, shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of others.” (See my book The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson (1994), pp. 76 & 344 n.56. As I generally note on p. 76, “Fundamental to Jefferson’s political philosophy was the idea that no government could legitimately transgress natural rights. In order for law to be binding, it not only must proceed from the will of properly authorized legislators but also must be `reasonable, that is, not violative of first rprinciples, natural rights, and the dictates of the sense of justice.’”)
So much, I guess, for the theory that Jefferson would have been okay with the police conduct in this matter.