Civil protest is a cornerstone of our rights as citizens of the United States and dates back to such events as the Boston Tea Party. While you might not want to go as far as taking boxes of tea and tossing them into a local harbor, you might have issues that you want to speak out on. Historically, a public gathering or protest has been ideal way to voice your dissent – or your agreement.
Before you get out your tennis shoes and your bullhorn, you might want to brush up on a few of your rights as a protester, as well as take note of activities that you might want to avoid engaging in, especially if you want to protest peacefully.
Can controversial free speech be restricted?
The first amendment provides protections to even controversial speech. However, police and government officials may use restrictions of “time, place, and manner” onto free speech. These restrictions must be nondiscriminatory and must be applied equally to all speech, regardless of viewpoint.
Where can I engage in free speech activities?
Generally, anywhere that could be considered a public forum, such as public streets, sidewalks, and parks. Additionally, the right to engage in protest may extend to places that the government has opened up for such activities, such as plazas in front of government buildings.
What about private property?
The owner of the property may set rules, which you must comply with, including rules that may limit your free speech. A property owner can order you off of their property and have you arrested for trespassing if you do not comply.
Do I need a permit?
In general, no. However, there are times when a protest or an event may require permits. In cases where a rally is large, will not stay on a sidewalk, will require traffic to be blocked, where amplifying devices will be needed, or at certain parks or plazas where a permit is designated as necessary.
Can I distribute literature on public sidewalks?
As long as building entrances are not blocked and as long as pedestrian traffic is not accosted, physically or maliciously detained, you may pass out literature, leaflets, and newspapers on public sidewalks. However, a permit may be needed if you wish to set up a table.
What about counter-protestors?
Just as you have the right to voice your opinion regarding a matter, so does the person holding an opposing opinion. However, counter-protesters should not be allowed to disrupt an event and police should keep opposing sides separated.
Do I have the right to photograph or videotape a protest?
If you are lawfully present in a public space, you have the right to photograph or videotape anything within your view. Additionally, police officers cannot lawfully confiscate your recording device, ask to view your recordings or ask you to delete pictures or video captured without a warrant.
These are just a few rights that people have when involved in public protest. For a full account of what your rights are, the ACLU has a .pdf file available here.