The “right of the people peaceably to assemble,” as the U.S. Constitution’s first amendment calls it, is one of the pillars of liberty. That’s why all liberal democracies guarantee and protect it in some form. But is this right absolute? Could there be, in well-defined cases, a liberal case for abridging it?

This timeless question has just become newly urgent. As I warned might happen, the COVID-19 pandemic has, directly or indirectly, increased social turmoil in many countries, leading more people to assert their right to protest. But as the very different circumstances in Belarus, the U.S. and Germany showed again last weekend, what counts as a primal scream for freedom in one gathering easily turns nefarious and anti-democratic in another.

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