Have you heard about or do you plan to attend the Women’s March in Washington, or a sister march in one of hundreds of cities nationwide? If you plan to protest, or are curious about the First Amendment, this guide will help you to know your rights as a peaceful protester.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects your freedom of speech, as well as the right of the people to assemble peacefully. Translation: you have a Constitutional right to demonstrate and protest. However, there are restrictions to this right: you can assemble in public places like the street, but private property such as the mall or city hall are off limits. And if you’re marching, there are more regulations and often permits required.
If you plan to exercise your First Amendment rights this weekend, remember to follow these guidelines:
Everyone can protest:
The First Amendment protects counter-demonstrators, and they can voice their dissent, but no one is allowed to disrupt the other. Both protests can be within the vicinity of one another.
It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it:
Even if it’s controversial, the First Amendment prohibits restrictions based on the content of speech. But bear in mind that the Constitution doesn’t protect everything under every circumstance; it doesn’t extend to libel, slander, obscenity, “true threats,” or speech that incites imminent violence or lawbreaking.
You don’t need a permit:
The First Amendment guarantees the right to assembly in public spaces, and if your demonstration doesn’t have a significant impact on traffic, you don’t need a permit. However, local authorities might require a permit for big events such as rallies and marches.
You can give printouts to people:
As long as you are not blocking building entrances or disrupting regular transit, you can give handouts to pedestrians. Permits might be required if you plan to set up tables or structures.
You can photograph or record it:
If you are lawfully present in a public space, you have the right to photograph or record it unless you are legitimately interfering with law enforcement activities. Police officers cannot confiscate or demand to view your phone or digital photos without a warrant.
If the police stop you:
Stay calm and don’t run. Make sure your hands are where they can see them, and don’t argue or resist. You are not obligated to show ID, but you can say your name when asked. Also, point out that the First Amendment protects you. When you ask if you are free to go, do so calmly and politely.
If you get arrested:
Again, do not resist. Your Miranda Rights state that you can remain silent and request a lawyer. Do not sign anything. You have the right to make a call, and the police aren’t allowed to listen.
If your rights are violated:
If the treatment you receive was not compliant with the law, try to record the incident and take photos of any injuries. Don’t argue; report misconduct later. If you plan to sue or complain, don’t tell the officer.
If you are planning on civil disobedience:
Civil disobedience is an active refusal to comply with the law as a peaceful form of protest. If you are engaging in this sort of protest, familiarize with your rights. We recommend talking to a lawyer before attempting this.
Please note: This guide doesn’t replace legal counsel, should you be arrested, or if you believe your rights have been violated, look for legail aid.
This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.