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Hey Hey, Ho Ho! The Right to Protest

US National Archives
US National Archives
Carmen Cornejo
Written by Carmen Cornejo

Dr. Marin Luther King protested. Cesar Chavez did, too. Just this past weekend, during Super Bowl 50, Beyoncé’s backup dancers protested off-screen at the halftime show the death of Mario Woods, who was killed by San Francisco police last December.

Protest is an important form of expression against injustice. From the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s to the Immigrant Rights and Black Lives Matter movements of today, protests have been a fundamental tool to propel social justice and change.

The First Amendment guarantees, in addition to freedom of religion and of the press, the right to protest or peacefully assemble to express yourself or petition the government for a redress of grievances. It is a cornerstone of our democracy.

While protesting, you can expect the government and law enforcement to take reasonable steps to facilitate the right to assemble, and to protect participants in peaceful demonstrations from disruption by others. However, many times government or law enforcement officials – even private entities or individuals – want to prevent or suppress the right to protest, or seek to intimidate individuals exercising the First Amendment through mass arrests, illegal use of force, or curfews. The best way to ensure your right to free speech is knowing the basics of protesting.

Here is list of things to consider:

1. We all have free speech rights, even your opponents. Be respectful of the opinions of others.

2. Keep it peaceful. Law enforcement can intervene to stop any demonstration that advocates violence or imminent lawless activity. Do not get into real legal trouble while expressing your views.

3. Research particular cities’ ordinances and laws. City ordinances should allow for a group to get proper permission and give opportunities for spontaneous expression. Schools and workplaces present their own set of limitations. Follow this link to review some of these considerations.

4. Ask for permission when it is a planned activity. City authorities must respond to your request to protest within a reasonable timeframe and allow spontaneous, breaking-news types of demonstrations.

4. Be aware of the difference between public and private spaces. Your rights may be considerably limited in private spaces. Local government can’t prohibit marches or demonstrations on public sidewalks or streets, or rallies in most public parks or plazas. But it can require a permit to regulate competing uses of the area and to ensure you respect reasonable time, place and manner.

5. Have in your Rolodex the contact of a lawyer to consult or seek help.

6. Carry a valid ID to identify yourself.

7. Undocumented immigrants and non-citizens may be legally vulnerable when protesting. Understand the legal consequences of possible charges to protesters.

Here is another guide that explores some of the issues surrounding protests.