Your legal rights to protest, explained


From police brutality to Wall Street excesses to obscene amounts of money in politics, we have much to protest in 2015 America.

I believe wholeheartedly in nonviolent protests. I’ve attended many over my lifetime and in the last year. Demonstrations helped get women the right to vote, shamed the country into ending Jim Crow segregation laws, and brought about our withdrawal from the Vietnam War. More recently, demonstrations have expressed appropriate citizen outrage against police violence. Peaceful protests are a healthy expression of democracy.

Want to participate? Unsure about your rights and when to assert those civil rights? Please read on.

(And for more information, you can always check out this interactive Q&A from the ACLU)

Know your rights before you protest

1. You have the right to demonstrate.

The First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech includes your right to peacefully protest any government action you please. You may protest alone or in a group. You have the right to take an unpopular opinion. The beauty of the First Amendment is its protection of any political viewpoint, even those considered radical or extreme.

If you’re in a small group, walking on public sidewalks and not obstructing anyone, you don’t need a permit. If you have a large group, need sound equipment or other special measures, you probably need a permit. You cannot be forced to pay more than a nominal fee for that permit. Check with your city.

In an emergency, such as after a major news event, you generally don’t need a permit to protest, so long as your group is peaceful.

But —

2. You do not have the right to threaten violence or harass anyone.

Don’t be a jerk. Criminal threats can land you in jail. They also undermine the credibility of your movement. Don’t imply someone will get hurt if you don’t get your way. Don’t yell fire in a crowded theater. You can be angry, and speak bluntly, just steer clear of specific threats to anyone.

3. The police can confine you to reasonable protest zones.

Communities have to balance citizens’ right to protest against others’ right to drive down the street, enter buildings, and go about their business. Bust out of the designated protest area, block traffic and disrupt events only if you understand that by doing so you’ll likely be arrested. Criminal convictions can follow you on job applications and elsewhere for the rest of your life. If you choose to be arrested, go into it with your eyes wide open as to the consequences.

4. Private property owners can make their own rules.

Demonstrations generally occur on public streets rather than, say, privately owned shopping malls, because owners of private property can decide to limit or ban protests on their real estate, or even on the sidewalk in front of it.

5. When stopped by police, you have the right to record.

You may pull out your cell phone and peacefully record any encounter with police so long as you do not obstruct their work. And I recommend that you do, because we have seen many cases over the last year where those videos undermined the police story about what took place in a violent encounter.

Should You Assert Your Rights With Police?

In the case of Sandra Bland, who died a few weeks ago in a Texas prison after being stopped for failing to signal, the video of her traffic stop exposed massive violations of her civil rights. Her heartbreaking last words in public were to a bystander, recording her take down, “Thank you for recording.”

Sandra knew her rights and attempted to assert them. She knew she was legally required only to give identifying information, and did not want to speak to the officer further. He illegally threatened to “light her up” with his Taser, got her out of the car, and slammed her to the ground. After being arrested for assaulting the police officer, which does not occur on any of the videos of the incident, she died in jail three days later.

In response to the Sandra Bland tragedy, many legal analysts say that citizens should not assert their rights with police, but just do whatever they say and argue about it later. But if we are required to just comply with any police demand, no matter how illegal, we are living in a police state. (This is certainly the case for African Americans who bear the brunt of heavy police presence in urban neighborhoods, with massive racial profiling and constant police brutality for minor infractions.) That is unacceptable.

Instead, I recommend that protestors stick together, have multiple people recording interactions with police, stay calm, and politely assert their rights. In many cases, police will back down and respect those rights. Otherwise, there will be a record of any illegal behavior.

Our constitutional rights are only as good as those brave enough to assert them. To all who take to the streets to stand for equality and justice, I salute you.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.

Need legal help regarding your right to protest? Go here to hire an attorney, or read more on the subject on Avvo’s civil rights topic page.

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