Zoning laws in the U.S. are generally passed locally and ideally reflect the general interests in that locality concerning the ways that land use and type of private or business establishment affects the community as a whole. Local boards and councils pass such zoning ordinances in order to exercise community control over the quality of life in the area. Restrictions on property use and building are often a central focus of such laws. Both the types of businesses and the living arrangements allowed in a locale may be controlled in this way, so that, for example, a strip club or gambling parlor might not be allowed despite the property rights that owners of the establishments enjoy.

Apart from legal restrictions, however, there are nuisance laws and other legal provisions that can be used to control how a particular property might be used (restricting the noise level coming from the property for example). However, in many cases these legal provisions may allow the use of a property in ways that might be highly offensive to a segment of the local population, albeit a segment not large enough to command a voting majority on the relevant governing board.

Consider, then, that a business opens in your neighborhood that your friends find highly offensive. I say “your friends” because I am imagining a case where you yourself are not a member of the group expressing offense. Say you are a male and a strip club opens up that many of your female friends find to be sexist and offensive, if not dangerous. Or imagine that a shop selling racist propaganda opens but you are not a member of the racial group targeted in the material.

Your friends have lobbied to change the zoning to restrict such a business but have so far not succeeded. Instead, they plan to protest constantly in front of the business, shouting at customers, waving signs and chanting through bull horns, making use of the business highly inconvenient, if not impossible (especially if one wanted to go in and out of the business unmolested by protesters).

What do you think are the standards by which such protest actions are justified? What case must be made about the nature of the business and the alleged offense or harm it causes for this level of interference to be justified? Or is it always justified if the manner of protest does not itself break any existing laws? For example, must the harm or offense being alleged by the protesters be documented? Must there be actual physical harm resulting from the business in evidence, or can one merely claim to be offended by it to justify such interfering protests?

To be clear, the question is not whether such protests should be legally allowed—I am stipulating that they are legal. The question is whether they are justified, full stop. What are the standards governing social critique of this sort, and what are the limits to which such critique can go, given the standards of justification in question?

Explanation & Answer length: 5 pages

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