SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The first amendment guarantees the right to freedom of speech, assembly and petition against the government by the people of the United States. However, the exact details of what exactly is allowed while expressing those rights is a little bit vague.

Local governments can still enact statutes governing the way people are allowed to use their power of assembly, particularly when protesting. For example, they can require permits for gatherings and marches.

What this means is that there are times when the ability to exercise one’s first amendment rights may clash with the law regarding how you are to do so. Enter civil disobedience.

On the evening of June 29 in Sioux Falls, an abortion rights protest was held without a permit in downtown. Police, who estimate the crowd grew to a size of 1,100 people, declared it an unlawful assembly and ultimately arrested six people.

“Civil disobedience is a morally motivated act of law breaking.”

Those are the words of Alexander Livingston, an associate professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University. Livingston has a background in the study of the history of civil disobedience, with a depth of knowledge regarding the theory and application of the practice, both historically and in modern day.

The moral aspect of civil disobedience is important.

“Civil disobedience is law breaking,” said Livingston. “But it’s law breaking — traditionally — in the service of some higher law.”

This distinction results in a philosophical question, according to Livingston. He points to an idea that the American constitution has principles of justice baked into it.

“When protesters say ‘we refuse to follow this particular positive law — we’re appealing to a higher law — to the principle itself,'” Livingston said.

This is what separates civil disobedience from petty crime.

Civil disobedience, says Livingston, is a leveraging of one portion of the first amendment against another part of it; acting in service of upholding one portion of it, while at the same time possibly violating the law. This leveraging is why a protest such as sitting in a diner, or in a roadway, can be considered protected speech.

“The Supreme Court has recognized that various forms of sit-ins and other such things can be considered speech — even if it involved use of one’s body,” he said.

While some may take issue with the lack of a permit in the case of the Sioux Falls march, Livingston says this too can be viewed through the lens of civil disobedience.

“Why don’t people pursue permits,” he asked. “There’s a symbolic action there, too. Stating that they don’t recognize the legitimacy of governing institutions — and the choice not to pursue a permit is a way of expressing that.”

Some have also questioned the idea of protestors violating a municipal statute when they are really opposing action by the federal government. To explain this, Livingston points to the difference between direct and indirect disobedience.

“Direct civil disobedience is when you violate a law that is directly unjust,” said Livingston, holding up a refusal to uphold the law of the fugitive slave act as an example of direct disobedience of a law. This type of disobedience is actually pretty rare, he says.

“Most cases of civil disobedience are what we call indirect disobedience,” Livingston said. “Where the law you’re breaking isn’t in itself just or unjust. It’s a kind of banal administrative law, like ‘don’t walk on the street’ or ‘get a permit before you march.’ You break that law, not because you think there’s anything unjust about requiring you have a permit, but because there is something symbolic about it.”

There is of course a contradiction inherent in breaking the law in order to call for some form of justice.

Livingston helps to reconcile this contradiction by highlighting the necessity of law breaking to sometimes affect change.

“People will say you should never break the law because there are other ways of voicing your opinion,” he said. “You can always call your representative, you can vote, you can donate — but there are reasons in many cases to think that channels have become exhausted, that they’re unresponsive, that you’ve gone through that action of writing your representative, voting in your elections and these issues are not getting uptake. Therefor, out of moral urgency, something more is required of you.”

Livingston points out that civil disobedience is generally not the first tactic employed to seek change, but also noted that the U.S. system of government is notoriously gridlocked, polarized and generally bad at responding in real time to social movements with legislation.

“This is why this kind of contentious street politics has been an enduring part of our political tradition,” he said.

Livingston sees civil disobedience as a valid form of civil expression and democratic action, and expressed that the government and police could do a lot in the way of treating it as such.

“There should be some kind of toleration of it, if not support for it in civic life,” Livingston said. “That’s something that police are really bad at these days.”

In Sioux Falls, police attempted to disburse the protesters who were not leaving the area with smoke, but in this occasion say they did not deploy chemical agents such as tear gas. While these actions likely run contrary to what Livingston and many others would like to see, he also doesn’t express a view that police should just do nothing in response to civil disobedience.

“One way is thinking about sentencing — you might have some leniency at sentencing where the judge says well this is not a civil crime, but a political act, so we’ll suspend sentences, or there will be some kind of symbolic sentence,” Livingston said. “You can have cases where, and this happens in some instances, where protesters and police arrange arrests before hand — they get publicly arrested and the police get to manage and control the event.”

Livingston says this accommodation could even be not violently suppressing the protesters, and not using military gear on U.S. civilians — not showing up in riot gear.

Ultimately, tensions stayed low in Sioux Falls on Thursday. Six arrested out of a total of 1,100 is not a large amount, especially for a gathering declared illegal.

Livingston says his view of the event indicates that people are scared and angry here in Sioux Falls, and that they are looking to act.

“This civil disobedience is a longstanding, valuable way that citizens act, express voice and take a stand in their civil lives,” he said. “They’ve reached for it here, because they feel things are very, very urgent.”