Proactive civil unrest can be an effective way to induce change, but it can be dangerous too. While you might think that anything goes during a protest, the truth is there are levels to your rights as a protester.

To help protestors understand their rights, the American Civil Liberties Union compiled a presentation clarifying the rights of individuals as they express their First Amendment privileges.  The presentation covers best practices regarding where to protest, what kind of talk is acceptable. ACLU, the 4-1-1- on permits and whether or not you’re allowed to film the police. 

Your First Amendment Right

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Simply put, when it comes to protests, citizens of the United States have the right to assemble peaceably and to petition (make requests of) the government.

Are You a Protester or Legal Observer?

A protester attends the event with intent of demonstrating opposition to the issue at hand. A LO does not. LO’s check-in with a coordinator or an attorney representing protesters. They stay neutral at the event and in some way are distinguishable – usually wearing something green; maybe a hat, vest or shirt.

Protester Rights

As a protester, your rights are strongest in public locations. Some “traditional public fora” are government buildings, sidewalks, streets and parks. Private property like residences, businesses, and parking lots require permission from the property owner.

Government cannot require a permit for protests in response to recent events.

Remember, counter-protesters also have free speech rights. The police must treat both sides equally, but are permitted to keep antagonistic groups separated. Both groups are allowed to be in sight of the other.

Unpopular speech cannot be censored, but government agents can censor speech that invites “imminent violence” or “law-breaking.”         

When it comes to photographing or video-recording the police during protests, it’s legal, and your right is protected under the First Amendment. Your recording devices may not be confiscated, and police cannot demand to view your digital evidence without a warrant.

If protest activities do legitimately conflict with law enforcement operations, police officers may have legitimate grounds to order individuals to cease what they are doing.

Getting arrested at protest can have serious consequences.  If you have prior convictions, your arrest may be a violation of your probation directives, and unless you’re squeaky clean, you might end of being held on a prior warrant.  Beware, in some cases, law enforcement officers may try to upcharge your violations.

Legal Observers

At all times, LO’s are impartial volunteers. A LO will silently document all that takes place during the event. They are necessary because they record incidents and are able to testify in court on behalf of individuals who are wrongfully handled during a protest.

While at a protest, LO’s suspend their First Amendment right to protect the First Amendment rights of others.

LO’s take notes, and record video and photos with premeditated visual distance from protesters. They capture the time, date and location of events, witnesses and involved officer information, dialogue and actions taken. It’s important to take note of the name and date of birth for anyone arrested. The most protected and best recording device to use is a cellphone. Typically, your information is automatically uploaded to a cloud system; and your information is password secured.

The most necessary reason for LO presence is to document arrests made. This information can be taken to your local ACLU, and used to file lawsuits.

Figure Out the Logistics

When you arrive at the protest event, you should find out what the action plan is; you’ll want to know which direction the march will take place and anything else significant. Is there a rally or planned arrest?

Be aware of what police agencies are present and where they are located in the crowd; plain clothes cops will be present too.

If your rights are violated, treat it like a car accident or break-in. Write down everything you can. Record injuries and contact information. Most importantly, get officers’ agency, badge and patrol car numbers; their names will not be easily accessible. 

Last word of advice, if you get arrested – don’t say or sign anything, instead declare your legal right to seek legal counsel. Once you have gathered enough info, you can file a written complaint with the agency’s internal affairs division or civilian complaint board.

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