The First Amendment right to join with fellow citizens in protest or peaceful assembly is critical to a functioning democracy. But it is also unfortunately true that governments and police can violate this right through the use of mass arrests, illegal use of force, criminalization of protest, and other means intended to thwart free public expression.

Standing up for your right to protest can be challenging, especially when demonstrations are met with violence. But knowing your rights is the most powerful weapon you have against police abuse. Here’s what you need to know before heading out to exercise your constitutionally protected right to protest.

Check out the questions and answers below or click here for more.

1. Can my free speech be restricted because of what I say—even if it is controversial?

Q.Can my free speech be restricted because of what I say—even if it is controversial?
A.

No. The First Amendment prohibits restrictions based on the content of speech. However, this does not mean that the Constitution completely protects all types of speech activity in every circumstance. Police and government officials are allowed to place certain narrowly drawn "time, place and manner" restrictions on the exercise of First Amendment rights — for example, permit requirements for large groups using public parks or limits on the loudness of sound amplifiers. Any such restrictions must apply to all speech regardless of its point of view.

2. Where can I engage in free speech activity?

Q.Where can I engage in free speech activity?
A.

Generally, all types of expression are constitutionally protected in traditional "public forums" such as streets, sidewalks, and parks. In addition, you may have a right to speak in other public locations that the government has opened up for unrestricted public speech, such as plazas in front of government buildings.

3. What about free speech activity on private property?

Q.What about free speech activity on private property?
A.

The general rule is that free speech activity cannot take place on private property absent the consent of the property owner. There may be exceptions in Massachusetts for large shopping malls, but these generally apply only to obtaining signatures relating to elections.

4. Do I need a permit before I engage in free speech activity?

Q.Do I need a permit before I engage in free speech activity?
A.

Not usually. However, certain types of events require permits. Generally, these events are:

  1. A march or parade that does not stay on the sidewalk, and other events that require blocking traffic or street closure;
  2. A large rally requiring the use of sound amplifying devices; or
  3. A rally at certain designated parks or plazas, such as the Boston Common. Many permit procedures require that the application be filed several weeks in advance of the event. However, the First Amendment prohibits such an advance notice requirement from being used to prevent rallies or demonstrations that are rapid responses to unforeseeable and recent events.

Many permit procedures require that the application be filed several weeks in advance of the event. However, the First Amendment prohibits such an advance notice requirement from being used to prevent protests in response to recent news events. Also, many permit ordinances give too much discretion to the police or city officials to impose conditions on the event, such as the route of a march or the sound levels of amplification equipment. Such restrictions may violate the First Amendment if they are unnecessary for traffic control or public safety, or if they interfere significantly with effective communication to the intended audience. A permit cannot be denied because the event is controversial or will express unpopular views.

 

5. I still have questions. Where can I find more information?

Q.I still have questions. Where can I find more information?

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