June 1, 2020

Hitting the Streets: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities as a Demonstrator

Free Speech Rights

  • Generally expression is constitutionally protected in “traditional public forums” such as streets, sidewalks, and parks. This does not include speech that incites violence.
  • You also likely have the right to speak out on other public property, like plazas in front of government buildings, as long as you are not blocking access to the government building or interfering with other purposes the property was designed for.
  • The government may put reasonable restrictions on how, where and when you exercise your free speech as long as those restrictions are neutral toward the content of your speech.
  • Generally, you don’t need a permit to march in the streets or on sidewalks, as long as marchers don’t obstruct car or pedestrian traffic. If you don’t have a permit, police officers can ask you to move to the side of a street or sidewalk to let others pass or for safety reasons.
  • Certain types of events may require permits. These include a march or parade that requires blocking traffic or street closure; a large rally requiring the use of sound-amplifying devices; or a rally over a certain size at most parks or plazas.
  • While certain permit procedures require submitting an application well in advance of the planned event, police can’t use those procedures to prevent a protest in response to breaking news events.
  • Free speech activity cannot take place on private property without the consent of the owner.

The Right to Photograph

  • When you are lawfully present in any public space, you have the right to photograph anything in plain view, including federal buildings and the police. On private property, the owner may set rules related to photography or video.
  • Police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your photographs or video without a warrant, nor may they delete data under any circumstances. However, they may order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations.

Law Enforcement Encounters

  • When dealing with officers, keep your hands in plain sight, refrain from making sudden movements, do not touch the officer or their equipment, and avoid walking behind an officer or the police line.
  • Police may not break up a gathering unless there is a clear and present danger of riot, disorder, interference with traffic, or other immediate threat to public safety.
  • If officers issue a dispersal order, they must provide a reasonable opportunity to comply, including sufficient time and a clear, unobstructed exit path.
  • Individuals must receive clear and detailed notice of a dispersal order, including how much time they have to disperse, the consequences of failing to disperse, and what clear exit route they can follow, before they may be arrested or charged with any crime.
  • If it appears that an officer is trying to gain personal information from you without a reasonable cause, it is advisable to not offer information to officers in this setting, even your name.
  • Law enforcement may detain you if they have reasonable suspicion that you are engaged in an illegal activity. They may require you to provide them with personal identification, and they may “frisk” your outer clothing if they reasonably suspect that you are armed and dangerous (you may ask for an officer of the same gender for searches). Ask the officer if you are being detained. If they say no, you have the right to walk away without further comment. If they respond yes, then ask for the reason for your detention, do not consent to a search, exercise your right to remain silent and ask for an attorney.
  • Officers can arrest you only if they have probable cause to believe that you have engaged in illegal activity. Remember to exercise your right to remain silent and to consult with an attorney.
  • At any point, you may ask to speak with the watch commander.
  • If you believe your rights have been violated, write down everything you can remember, including the officers’ badge and patrol car numbers and the agency they work for. Get contact information for witnesses.

*Thank you to the ACLU