As the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson put it so well, “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.” The debate between the upholding of legislation and the right to civil disobedience has been the center of debate for centuries in the country proud for a just constitution and protected free speech, so it's inevitable for this paper, short in length, to be rather American centric upon the analysis of such a conundrum.
There is a dangerously thin line placed upon the preamble of this question. It is phrased so to ask the law’s strength only when the perpetrator of disobedience believes the law to be unjust. But the question arises: how does an individual’s self justification give one the right to break the law? Who is there to brand a law as “just” or “unjust,” vigilantes and lawyer wannabes? Surely not.
Assuming analysis under a constitutional democratic society, some situations come into mind immediately, seemingly to justify such a question. The great civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. and his Letters from Birmingham Jail could be used as evidence for my fellow scholars supporting the claim allowing for a breach in the law. I mean no disrespect to Mr. King, and no doubt his work in breaking the laws that promote segregation and racism has laid the foundations for America on a path of desegregation and civil rights movements, but he is one man, and this is one case.
Mr. King’s legacy in the history books remain a national hero for him standing up for what is right, but the key here that most ignore is the subjective belief of righteousness. From a liberal perspective of 2022, indeed what he did can be called just and politically correct.
However, let’s raise a hypothetical scenario. A man who is mentally deranged believes that the law to murder is unjust as citizens should have the right to kill with premeditated design to whomever they dislike. He goes ahead and breaks the law, taking the life of his enemy.
Although extreme, the example accurately shows a discrepancy between what one believes to be right and what can be branded as right. There is no one who can make a decision on what is just and what is not. And one’s own sentiments and belief cannot trump the basics of the legal system. Such actions would threaten to shake the foundations of the legal justice system as the law needs to be upheld as a symbol for order.
There are ways to protest against an unjust law. Rallies and speeches are legally protected by the law, and they can be used to go against an unjust law. But at the end of the day, if citizens have the ability to decide themselves the justness of law, and break the law when they deem it appropriate, social justice will be rendered obsolete, and the foundations of law broken.