Faculty Journal Articles and Book Chapters


Mass public defiance of legal authority has a lengthy history in America, extending back to the nation’s founding. Indeed, the very existence of the United States is the result of the ultimate act of defiance against legal authority—the revolution against Great Britain. It hardly stopped there, however. Defiance of legal authority has persisted from the outset to the present. Examples include Shays’ Rebellion, defiance of the Supreme Court’s decisions in M’Culloch v. Maryland and the Cherokee territory cases; the Nullification Crisis; slave revolts; defiance of the fugitive slave laws; resistance to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case; the Civil War; persecution of freedmen following the Civil War and resistance to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments; the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s labor violence; the draft resistance during the First World War; the defiance that led to prohibition and then the defiance of prohibition laws; the Civil Rights Movement; the defiance of the Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education; the defiance of the Court’s decisions with respect to school prayer and abortion; resistance to the Vietnam War; the 1960s urban riots; the Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of police officers charged with beating Rodney King; and most recently, defiance of law was triggered by the mistreatment of African Americans by police; and the Capitol’s invasion following the 2020 presidential election. These are simply a few more prominent instances of defiance of legal authority in American history. The American experiences are foreshadowed by the centuries-long history of defiance of legal authority in England, running at least from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 through the Lord George Gordon riots of the late eighteenth century (around the time of the American Revolution), not to mention the near continuous revolt and tumult in Ireland.

This Article will focus on instances in which an individual or, much more usually, a group will publicly and deliberately defy the law based on a belief that it is unjust or simply wrong, sometimes but not always to provoke legal reform. Just as private individuals can engage in public defiance of law, so may government officials. In our democracy, everyone is under an obligation to obey the law. Many instances of public defiance, as will be seen, involve misconduct by government officials. When that occurs, ideally, the courts will impose sanctions.

Publication Title

St. Mary's Law Journal

Document Type



Public defiance, Legal authority, Law, History, Rule of law



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