Sometimes, engaging in a protest is the only way to show community-wide disapproval of government action. Protests are constitutionally protected forms of free speech, but the right to protest does have limits. Knowing how to protest within the confines of the law can help ensure your message is heard without encouraging police intervention or other distractions from your mission.
How to engage in a protest
8 tips for how to protest safely, legally and effectively.
Tip #1 – Your right to protest is guaranteed by the First Amendment
As a starting point, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects free speech. Across several generations of case law, the term “free speech” has been interpreted to include many different acts and demonstrations, including protests.
Tip #2 – You can protest in public areas
Free speech rights extend to public areas, including sidewalks, parks and streets. However, police and other local governing bodies are allowed to impose content-neutral restrictions regarding time, place and manner on free speech demonstrations.
This means that you may be required to get a permit. It also means that the city can prevent you from blocking traffic or pedestrians, and can impose noise limits and time restraints on your demonstration. These are lawful restraints as long as the content of the speech is not considered in any way.
Tip #3 – You can say (almost) anything you want
The right to free speech and protest guarantees freedom from content-specific restraints from the government. However, certain words and phrases fall outside the purview of free speech. If your language contains obscenities, words meant to incite violence or hate speech directed at certain groups, the government can shut your protest down.
Tip #4 – You have to keep it peaceful
Your protest can be fiery and emotional. You can yell, chant and carry signs depicting graphic images as long is the visual content does not cross into the realm of obscene. But you cannot break the law and call it free speech.
Laws against larceny, breaking and entering, vandalism, assault and battery, obstruction of justice, and pulling out a weapon remain firmly in place. The moment protestors begin breaking these laws, law enforcement has the right to step in and start making arrests.
Tip #5 – Did we mention conspiracy laws?
Criminal conspiracy laws are also still in play during a protest. In most jurisdictions, conspiracy is defined as two or more people agreeing to engage in criminal activity. Some jurisdictions require a finding that conspirators took actual steps to further their criminal activity plan; other states only require evidence of an agreement.
What does this mean during a protest? If you and some fellow protesters decide on a whim to taunt a police officer (a crime), you could face charges identical to the others, even if you just stood there or did not fully participate. If the protest turns criminal, it is best to get out right away and avoid an arrest or criminal charge.
Tip #6 – Plan for the worst
Safety gear might be a good idea, even if you are fairly certain your protest will remain civil. The issues underlying many demonstrations are highly emotional and personal to many involved, and it is not uncommon for a protest to turn violent or even deadly.
Police often wear protective gear when working at a protest, and demonstrators should consider similar preventative tactics. Hats and shatterproof eye wear can help protect against pepper spray or tear gas.
Tip #7 – Protect your rights
Constitutional criminal procedure laws are clear. Police must either arrest you or let you go, and they have to answer any questions about which category you fall under. If you are under arrest, your Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment protections kick in. Except for identifying yourself, you are no longer required to speak to police, and you have a right to legal counsel. Police must acknowledge that you are under arrest, and you have a right to know exactly why. Failure by police in either of these areas usually means that any statements or evidence gathered thereafter is not admissible against you.
Tip #8 – Keep the goal in mind
Protests have been widely successful in American history, resulting in changes to policy and dramatic shifts in society and culture. So, remember the importance of what you are doing. A large group of citizens voicing their objectives civilly and respectfully has the potential to make a huge impact for people across the country.