Before heading out to participate in a protest, it’s a good idea to have a firm grasp of your legal rights.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is a part of the United States Bill of Rights that protects freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and right to petition. This means you have a legal and constitutional right to express your view through protest.
Where to Engage in Free Speech Activity
In general, you can lawfully engage in free speech activities, such as protests, in traditional “public forums” such as streets, sidewalks, and parks. This activity may also be permitted to take place at plazas in front of government buildings, as long as you do not block access or interfere with other purposes the property was designed for.
Private property laws are different. Property owners set rules for speech, and free speech activity cannot take place on private property without the property owner’s approval. However, the government may not restrict speech when taking place on your own property.
Is a Permit Needed to Engage in Free Speech Activity?
When participating in free speech activity within the confines of traditional “public forums,” you generally do not need a permit. When participating in a march, marchers, however, cannot obstruct car or pedestrian traffic. Law enforcement can ask you to move to the side of a street or sidewalk for safety reasons.
Events requiring the blocking of traffic, or the use of sound-amplifying devices may require permits. In most cases, permits need to be applied for several weeks in advance. However, rallies or demonstrations that are rapid responses to unforeseeable and recent events are protected under the First Amendment, which prohibits such an advance notice requirement when pertaining to current affairs.
Am I allowed to take pictures or shoot video at a protest?
Generally, any time you are lawfully present in a public space, anything in plain view can be photographed. This includes federal buildings and law enforcement. You cannot, however, secretly record another person without their knowledge or permission. That is a criminal act under Massachusetts Law.
Law enforcement may not confiscate or demand to view your photographs or video without a warrant. However, citizens can be ordered to cease activities when they interfere with legitimate law enforcement operations.
Can Law Enforcement Shut Down a Protest?
Law enforcement can issue an order to disperse only as a last resort. It is unlawful for law enforcement to break up gatherings where there is no clear and present danger of riot, disorder, interference with traffic, or other immediate threat to public safety.
A reasonable opportunity to comply, such as sufficient time and an unobstructed exit path, must be granted if a dispersal order is issued. A clear and detailed notice about the dispersal is required before law enforcement can make arrests or charge anyone with a crime.
Know What to do if Your Rights are Violated
The most important thing to do if your rights are violated is to remain calm and never physically resist law enforcement. In the event you are stopped, ask if you are free to leave. If the answer is yes, you can calmly walk away. You have the right to ask what crime you are being held for in the event you are detained.
When you are in a safe environment, write down everything you remember about the interaction. Take note of the officers’ badge and patrol car numbers and the agency they work for. Gather contact information of witnesses and photograph any injuries.
If you need legal advice or were arrested or charged with a crim during a free speech activity, our highly-skilled firm is here to help. Please contact our office to discuss your case.