Whether you’re attending a protest, organizing a rally, or just want to publicly document a demonstration, it’s important to know your rights. The First Amendment to the Constitution protects many forms of expression, including the right to peacefully participate in protests and marches. However, there are a few restrictions that the police and other government officials are sanctioned to enforce. Before you hit the streets, know your rights.
What Am I NOT Allowed to Do at a Protest?
You may have many questions when you decide to organize and speak out. Learn about your constitutional rights when protesting, the limits on those rights, and when your actions could be illegal. Here are a few things you can’t do at a protest:
- Threaten violence: The first amendment broadly protects speech, including provocative viewpoints and condemnation of nearly anything under the sun. However, you can’t incite imminent violence or other illegal activity that threatens harm to people or property.
- Carry out violence: In a similar vein, it’s illegal to participate in violent and destructive behavior, even if you’re expressing a political message.
- Threaten the president or vice president: It’s considered a federal felony to knowingly and willfully threaten harm upon the president or vice president of the United States.
- Block traffic: While you’re permitted to protest in public areas, you can’t obstruct normal vehicular traffic or block citizens from walking by on foot, unless you have a permit. Likewise, you can’t barricade private property.
- Physically disrupt or drown out other speakers: Two opposing groups are permitted to be within the same general area, but law enforcement has the right to separate them. While heckling is allowed, it can’t become disruptive to a point where one group can no longer peacefully express themselves.
Be wary of protesting on private property. Owners can set rules for speech on their property, and they can restrict your ability to take photographs and shoot video.
What AM I Allowed to Do at a Protest?
While government officials are allowed to place narrow restrictions on the exercise of speech rights, it’s important to know what you’re allowed to do at a peaceful protest. Knowing your rights can get you out of a sticky situation.
- Exercise your free speech rights on public property: As long as you’re not impeding civilians, obstructing traffic, or inciting violence, you’re allowed to express yourself in any way you see fit, even if your message is controversial. This could be through signs, t-shirts, flags, and more.
- Approach other people in public areas: You may hand out leaflets, newspapers, and petitions to passersby. However, you can’t impede them from walking away, and you must leave them alone if asked to do so.
- Counterprotest: You’re allowed to protest another protest, and law enforcement officials must treat protesters and counter protesters equally. You’re allowed to be within a reasonable distance of another group, but the police can separate you should it get violent or antagonistic.
- Photograph or take videos of anything in plain view, including the police: You can document your surroundings if you’re on public property. On private property, owners can determine the rules related to photography and video.
- March on private property, as long as you have a permit: If you plan to march on the streets and sidewalks, use an amplifying device, or hold a rally over a certain size, you must obtain a permit first.
A police officer is not permitted to ask you to “disperse,” unless the protest has become destructive or otherwise illegal. In this case, if you fail to obey the order, officers have the right to arrest you, even if you’re not committing an act of violence.
It’s also important to know that the police are legally allowed to protest undercover. Additionally, they may attend meetings to learn about plans for illegal activity.
Law enforcement officials have the right to search demonstrators if there’s a reasonable suspicion that they’re about to perform an illegal act. Likewise, they can check bags and containers at the entrance to a marked or secure area. Otherwise, officers can’t search through your belongings, nor can they confiscate or demand to see your photographs without a warrant.
If Your Rights Have Been Violated, Call a Lawyer
Everyone in this country has the right to protest. If you’re facing charges for protesting peacefully and you believe your rights have been infringed, you need a knowledgeable civil rights attorney on your side. The expert lawyers at the Michigan Legal Center have more than 20 years of experience helping clients and have won more than $200 million worth of legal cases. Our professional team specializes in creating strong cases for our clients and we strive to defend the residents of Michigan. Give us a call at 1-800-961-8477 or contact us online for your free consultation.