What it is: This is a form of non-violent action, and means deliberately breaking a law that you believe is unjust.
What it means: 'Civil disobedience' was first given this name by the American writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). He deeply disapproved of the American government for not banning slavery and for invading Mexico. Mexico, said Thoreau, was 'unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army and subjected to military law - and ours is the invading army'. He didn't want to be associated with this: 'I wish to refuse allegiance to the State'. So he refused to pay his poll tax. He was briefly imprisoned for his action. Civil disobedience was used by Gandhi and his followers in the early 1930s, in India under British rule, and this action (they defied laws on the production of salt, laws which penalised the poor) contributed to the move towards Indian independence. In America, civil disobedience strategies (such as boycotts) were also used by the largely successful movement for racial equality led by Martin Luther King. More recently, some people have refused to pay part of their taxes, equivalent to the percentage their governments spend on weapons.
Think about it: Civil disobedience as a method of protest is very attractive. It's a real and significant protest that gets the headlines, and it can spread quickly. It's not aggressive or violent, which makes it a fine way of protesting against repression and violence. But like most things, it can be abused (by, say, breaking quite reasonable rules for selfish purposes). It's also important not to let successful civil disobedience give you a dangerous sense of power. What causes could civil disobedience be a particularly good way of promoting? What about refusing to make weapons or go to war? What sort of courage might civil disobedience need - among friends as well as opponents? Here's another quotation from Thoreau: 'Men serve the state not as men but as machines. In most cases there is no free exercise of judgement or moral sense....A very few serve the state with their consciences also.'