The right to join with fellow citizens in protest or peaceful assembly is critical to a functioning democracy. But it is also unfortunately true that governments and police can violate this right – through the use of mass arrests, illegal use of force, criminalization of protest, and other means intended to thwart free public expression.
Standing up for your right to protest can be challenging, especially when demonstrations are met with violence. But knowing your rights is the most powerful weapon you have against police abuse. Read on to learn what you need to know before heading out to exercise your constitutionally protected right to protest.
YOUR RIGHT TO PROTEST
- You have a constitutionally protected right to engage in peaceful protest in “traditional public forum” such as streets, sidewalks, or parks. But, the government can impose certain “time, place and manner” restrictions on speech by requiring permits. These restrictions are generally permissible as long as they are reasonable and not based on content. The government cannot impose permit restrictions simply because it does not like the message of a certain speaker or group.
- If, for example, you are planning a parade that involves closing down streets, a permit is almost always required. But a small march that stays on public sidewalks and obeys all traffic signals often does not require a permit. Make sure to inquire about city or county ordinances that regulate First Amendment activities.
- You are allowed to have protests that block streets if it is in response to an incident that just occurred that there wouldn't have been enough time to get a permit. For example, protesting a police shooting that just occurred.
- Generally, you have the right to distribute literature, hold signs, and collect petition signatures while on sidewalks or in front of government buildings as long as you are not disrupting other people, forcing passersby to accept leaflets or causing traffic problems.
- You have the right to set up tables on public sidewalks and solicit donations, as long as the walkway is not blocked. Find out about municipal restrictions on setup times or booth locations.
- Drumming, dancing, singing and chanting are all protected First Amendment activities. Street performers, mimes, or puppeteers also have a right to express themselves in public.
- In order to put on an event that involves a large group of people and the use of public facilities or amplified sound, you will need a permit. (Make sure to ask about noise ordinances and a noise ordinance waiver if necessary for a special event).
- Under the USA Patriot Act, non-US citizens who are not permanent residents can be investigated because of their First Amendment activities. Immigrants who choose to engage in a protest, march, or demonstration should carry with them the telephone numbers of friends and relatives, as well as the telephone numbers of an immigration attorney or an immigrant advocacy organization.
LIMITATIONS ON SPEECH
- The First Amendment does not protect speech that is combined with the violation of established laws such as trespassing, disobeying or interfering with a lawful order by a police officer.
- Although inflammatory speakers cannot be punished for merely arousing an audience, a speaker can be arrested for incitement if he/she advocates imminent violence or specifically provokes people to commit unlawful actions.
- Also unprotected are knowingly false statements about public officials.
LIMITATIONS ON ACTION
- Demonstrators who engage in civil disobedience–peaceful, but unlawful, activities as a form of protest–are not protected under the First Amendment.
- If you endanger others while protesting, you can be arrested. A protest that blocks vehicular or pedestrian traffic is illegal without a permit.
- You do not have the right to block a building entrance or physically harass people. The general rule is that free speech activity cannot take place on private property, including outdoor malls, without the consent of the property owner. You do not have the right to remain on private property after being told to leave by the property owners
- In Minnesota, a person whose identity is concealed by the person in a public place by means of a robe, mask, or other disguise, unless based on religious beliefs, or incidental to amusement, entertainment, protection from weather, or medical treatment, is guilty of a misdeamonor.