Civil Rights

The Right to Gather Has Some Restrictions

Both the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and most state constitutions protect your right to gather with other people for almost any reason: to express your religious views, to protest, even to have a party. But this doesn't mean you can do any of these things without restriction. You have the freedom to express your views in a group, but you can't disturb the public peace or infringe on anyone else's rights in the process.

Assembly Cannot Be Violent

Although the government can't stop you from joining with a group of others to make your views known, you must do it in a peaceful manner. Law enforcement has the right to break up any gathering that presents a "clear and present danger" to innocent bystanders, or even to members of your group. Police can disrupt your assembly if they think it might get out of hand. They might intervene if members of your group are shouting, using obscenities, or arguing with or threatening those who oppose them.

Law Enforcement May Control Gatherings

The law can restrict when you gather. Your group might have freedom of assembly, but law enforcement can prevent you from exercising that right in the wee hours of the morning when you're likely to wake others, or at rush hour when you might interfere with traffic flow. You must usually notify your local police department that you'll be gathering, in advance of the scheduled date.

Other Restrictions May Apply

Some municipalities require that groups get permits to assemble. This is legal, as long as they don't enforce the permit rule for one group but not another. The permit requirement must apply to all similar gatherings. For example, you may need a parade permit if you're planning to march down Main Street. However, all marches down Main Street would require the same kind of permit.

Private Property Is Exempt

The First Amendment usually applies only to public property, but there are gray areas. You can gather on your own property, but not on your neighbor's lawn against your neighbor's wishes. The individual who owns the property has the right to say what can and cannot happen there. If you gather others in your own home, you don't need a permit or permission from your municipality. However, if a circus is set to perform in a privately owned stadium, you may or may not be allowed to gather at the site to protest potential cruelty to animals. Typically, whether you can assemble and demonstrate in locations owned by businesses depends on your state's interpretation of the law.

A Civil Rights Lawyer Can Help

The law surrounding the right of U.S. citizens to assemble is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a civil rights lawyer.

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