Organizing or Attending a Protest? Know Your Rights

Group of individuals coming to together to protest the Black Lives Matter movement.

Under the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, the First Amendment affords and protects your right to assemble and express your views, even if those views are expressed through protest. It is important to recognize, however, that the police and other government officials are allowed to place certain narrow restrictions on your rights to free speech. If you are organizing a protest, make sure that you are prepared. Research and review the laws that may impact your rights. It may also be advisable to consult with a lawyer if you have questions or concerns. Remember that when attending a protest, circumstances may change rapidly and every situation is different, having consulted with or having access to an attorney is an important consideration in protecting you and your rights.

With this in mind, below are basic things that everyone should know about organizing or attending a protest.

Your Rights - The Basics for Organizing or Attending a Protest

  1. In areas known as “traditional public forums, your rights are at their strongest. “Traditional public forums” include streets, sidewalks, and parks. Your right to free speech will also likely extend to the other public properties. For example, the plaza in front of a government building. However, it is important that you do not block access to the government building or interfere with the designed purpose of the property.
  2. Owners of private property can set and establish rules for speech on their property. However, the government may not restrict your speech if you are speaking out on your own property or with the consent of the private property owner.
  3. Counter Protesters also have the right of free speech. Police and other government officials must treat protesters and counter protesters equally. Though the police are permitted to keep opposing and/or antagonistic groups separated from one another, they should allow them to be within sight and sound of the other.
  4. You have the right to photograph anything in plain sight when you are lawfully present in any public space. This includes federal buildings and the police. On private property, the private property owner may set rules related to photography or video.
  5. Police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your photographs or video without a warrant, nor may they delete data under any circumstances. However, they may order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations.
  6. If you are videotaping, be aware that there is an important legal distinction between a visual photographic record (fully protected) and the audio portion of a videotape, which some states have tried to regulate under state wiretapping laws.

Do I Require a Permit to Organize or Attend a Protest?

  1. A permit to march in the streets or on sidewalks is not necessary, as long as marchers do not obstruct car or pedestrian traffic. If you don’t have a permit, police officers can ask you to move to the side of a street or sidewalk to let others pass or for safety reasons.
  2. Certain events may require you to obtain a permit. These events include marches or parades which result in or require the blocking of traffic or closing a street; large rallies requiring the use of sound amplifying devices; or rallies over a certain size occurring at a park or plaza.
  3. Though some permit procedures may require submission of an application well in advance of the planned event, it should be noted that police can not use those procedures to prevent a protest in response to breaking news events.
  4. Other Things to Note About Permits:
    1. Restrictions on the route of a march or sound equipment might violate the First Amendment if they are unnecessary for traffic control or public safety, or if they interfere significantly with effective communication to the intended audience.
    2. A permit cannot be denied because the event is controversial or will express unpopular views.
    3. If the permit regulations that apply to your protest require a fee for a permit, they should allow a waiver for those who cannot afford the charge.

Orders to Disperse the Protest - What happens and what to do?

  1. This should be law enforcement’s last resort and police may not break up a gathering unless there is a clear and present danger of riot, disorder, interference with traffic, or other immediate threat to public safety.
  2. If a dispersal order is issued, the police must provide a reasonable opportunity to comply, including sufficient time and a clear, unobstructed exit path.
  3. The notice of dispersal order must be clear and detailed, providing individuals with information about how much time they have to disperse, the consequences for failing to disperse, and the clear exit route they should follow. These instructions should be provided before anyone may be arrested or charged with a crime.

What To Do If You Are Stopped By Police During The Protest

  1. Remain calm and stay focused. Keep your hands visible. Don’t argue, resist, or obstruct the police, even if you believe they are violating your rights. Point out that the First Amendment protects your right of free speech and to assemble. Detail how you are not disrupting anyone else’s activity or traffic.
  2. Again, always remain calm and never physically resist a police officer.
  3. Police cannot detain you without reasonable suspicion that you have or are about to commit a crime or are in the process of doing so.
  4. Ask the officer if you are free to leave. If yes, then calmly walk away.
  5. If you are arrested, you have a right to ask and know why. If arrested, it’s very important that you tell the officer that you wish to remain silent and ask for a lawyer immediately. Your right to remain silent is as important as your right of free speech! Don’t say anything or sign anything without speaking to a lawyer first!
  6. You have the right to make a local phone call. If you call your lawyer, the police are not allowed to listen.
  7. You never have to consent to a search of yourself or your belongings. If you give the police consent to search, anything they find may be used against you and it can impact you later in court.
  8. Police may “pat down” your clothing if they suspect you have a weapon and may search you after an arrest.
  9. Police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your photographs or video without a warrant, nor may they delete data under any circumstances. However, they may order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations.

What To Do If You Suspect Your Rights Have Been Violated

  1. Write down everything you remember, including the officers’ badge and patrol car numbers and the agency they work for as soon as it is possible for you to do so..
  2. Collect and record contact information for witnesses.
  3. Photograph of any events and injuries.
  4. After getting all of this information, file a written complaint with the agency’s internal affairs division or civilian complaint board.
  5. Keep a record of the filing and supporting documentation.
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