What are your rights at a protest?

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Citizen activism is as American as apple pie. Whether you call it a protest, a parade, a tea party, a town hall, a march, a sit-in, a patriotic rally, a picket line, a free speech event, or a nonviolent demonstration, your right to stand up peacefully for what you believe in is protected by the US Constitution. Read the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

To learn how to turn protest into powerful change, watch this TED-Ed Lesson.

Ready to exercise your constitutionally protected right to protest? Before you go, know your rights. Below, read an excerpt from the American Civil Liberties Union guidelines for protestors. [For a pdf of the full ACLU 'Know Your Rights' guidelines for protestors, click here.]

Can my free speech be restricted because of what I say—even if it is controversial? No. The First Amendment prohibits restrictions based on the content of speech. However, this does not mean that the Constitution completely protects all types of free speech activity in every circumstance. Police and government officials are allowed to place certain nondiscriminatory and narrowly drawn “time, place and manner” restrictions on the exercise of First Amendment rights. Any such restrictions must apply to all speech regardless of its point of view.

Do I have the right to photograph or videotape during protests?
Yes. When you are lawfully present in any public space, you have the right to photograph anything that is in plain view. That includes pictures of federal buildings, transportation facilities, and the police. When you are on private property, the property owner may set rules about the taking of photographs or video. Police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your digital photographs or video without a warrant, nor may they delete your photographs or video under any circumstances. However, they may legitimately order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations. Read more on the rights of photographers.

Do counter-demonstrators have free speech rights? Yes. Although counter-demonstrators should not be allowed to physically disrupt the event they are protesting, they do have the right to be present and to voice their displeasure. Police are permitted to keep two antagonistic groups separated but should allow them to be within the general vicinity of one another.

What do I do if I get stopped by the police? Stay calm, be polite, and don’t run. Don’t argue, resist, or obstruct the police, even if you are innocent or you believe that the police are violating your rights. In some states, you must give your name if asked to identify yourself, but you do not have to provide an ID or other paperwork. Make sure to keep your hands where police can see them. Point out that you are not disrupting anyone else’s activity and that the First Amendment protects your actions. Ask if you are free to leave. If the officer says yes, calmly and silently walk away. Read more about what to do if you’re stopped by the police, with special information for non-citizens. 

And if I’m under arrest? Do not resist arrest, even if you believe the arrest is unfair. If you are under arrest, you have a right to ask why. Otherwise, say you wish to remain silent and ask for a lawyer immediately. Don’t give any explanations or excuses. Don’t say anything, sign anything, or make any decisions without a lawyer. You have the right to make a local phone call, and if you’re calling your lawyer, police are not allowed to listen.

Can I be searched? You never have to consent to a search of yourself or your belongings. Police may “pat down” your clothing if they suspect you have a weapon, and may search you after an arrest. You should not physically resist, but you have the right to refuse consent for any further search. If you do explicitly consent, it can affect you later in court.

Where can I engage in free speech activity? Generally, all types of expression are constitutionally protected in traditional “public forums” such as streets, sidewalks, and parks. In addition, you may have a right to speak in other public locations that the government has opened up for unrestricted public speech, such as plazas in front of government buildings.

Do I need a permit before I engage in free speech activity? Not usually. However, certain types of events require permits. For example:

  • A march or parade that does not stay on the sidewalk, and other events that require blocking traffic or street closure;
  • A large rally requiring the use of sound amplifying devices; or
  • A rally at certain designated parks or plazas.

Many permit procedures require that the application be filed several weeks in advance of the event. However, the First Amendment prohibits such an advance notice requirement from being used to prevent protests in response to recent news events. Also, many permit ordinances give too much discretion to the police or city officials to impose conditions on the event, such as the route of a march or the sound levels of amplification equipment. Such restrictions may 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. A permit cannot be denied because the event is controversial or will express unpopular views.

If organizers have not obtained a permit, where can a march take place?
If marchers stay on the sidewalks and obey traffic and pedestrian signals, their activity is constitutionally protected even without a permit. Marchers may be required to allow enough space on the sidewalk for normal pedestrian traffic and may not maliciously obstruct or detain passers-by.

Do I have a right to picket on public sidewalks? Yes, and this is also an activity for which a permit is not required. However, picketing must be done in an orderly, non-disruptive fashion so that pedestrians can pass by and entrances to buildings are not blocked.

May I distribute leaflets and other literature on public sidewalks? Yes. You may approach pedestrians on public sidewalks with leaflets, newspapers, petitions and solicitations for donations without a permit. Tables may also be set up on sidewalks for these purposes if sufficient room is left for pedestrians to pass. These types of free speech activities are legal as long as entrances to buildings are not blocked and passers-by are not physically and maliciously detained. However, a permit may be required to set up a table.

What do I do if my rights have been violated? Remember: the street is not the place to challenge police misconduct. Don’t physically resist officers or threaten to file a complaint. As soon as you can, write down everything you remember, including officers’ badge and patrol car numbers, which agency the officers were from, and any other details. Get contact information for witnesses. If you are injured, take photographs of your injuries (but seek medical attention first). Once you have this information, you can file a written complaint with the agency’s internal affairs division or civilian complaint board; in many cases, you can file a complaint anonymously if you wish. You can also seek the assistance of an attorney or the ACLU.

For a pdf of the full ACLU ‘Know Your Rights’ guidelines for protestors, click here.

Art credit: Sarah Saidan/TED-Ed
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