These days, many people are interested in protesting. Yet it often seems as if the government would prefer citizens to express their grievances in a less disruptive way. Over the course of U.S. history, municipalities and police forces have tried many methods for limiting protests.

Some of these attempts have been found legal, whereas courts have ruled that others violate the First Amendment rights to free speech and free assembly, among other rights. What can you expect?

Officials can place reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of your demonstration. What governments cannot legally do is restrict your speech based on its content, unless that content constitutes an actual threat or incites people to imminent violence. Government officials can also require permits for large gatherings and may charge you reasonable fees for security, if necessary.

Your rights depend in part on where your demonstration takes place. Citizens are generally entitled to picket, protest and demonstrate in a non-violent manner in areas that have traditionally been considered public forums. However, protesters should take care not to be unduly disruptive.

  • For example, when demonstrating on a public sidewalk, you should allow pedestrians to pass and refrain from blocking building entrances. Leafleting or small gatherings on sidewalks generally do not require permits.
  • Public buildings may not restrict your free speech or assembly rights, but they can put reasonable restrictions in place. For example, you can generally picket or leaflet on the sidewalk outside the school or near school grounds, but the school can limit protests during the school day to prevent disruption. What a school cannot do is limit the content of your speech or discriminate against groups whose points of view officials disagree with.
  • If you would like to demonstrate in a mall or other private property, you will have to comply with the property owner’s rules — which can include limitations on your speech and assembly rights. If the property owner asks you to leave, you must do so or you could be arrested for trespass.

What about ‘free speech zones’?

At some events, officials have been attempting to restrict protest activities to special “protest zones” or “free speech zones.” As long as these zones are not unreasonable, they may be a permissible restriction on your rights. However, it is questionable that such a zone would be considered reasonable if it is so far away from the event as to prevent the protesters from being about to reach the targets of their message.

What is civil disobedience?

Not all protests involve civil disobedience, but some protesters feel that their message will be more effective if its delivery involves some disruption to people’s daily lives. Civil disobedience means non-violently disobeying the law in an effort to make a political point.

Civil disobedience may be necessary, but it is not without risk. No one has the right to violate the law, so you should prepare for possible arrest.

Overall, the U.S. Constitution protects non-violent assembly and freedom of speech. Governments are not free to unduly restrict or suppress speech, especially if they do so based on the speaker or the message. However, they can place reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of a demonstration.

If you are organizing or interested in attending a protest, it’s important to know your rights. If you have questions, contact an experienced civil rights attorney.