Riots vs. Peaceful Protests:
Know Your Rights Under the First Amendment
The recent killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd have sparked action amongst communities across all 50 states. In the last week, we have watched families and neighbors come together to grieve, organize, and exercise their right to peacefully assemble. We support those individuals who have turned their pain into productive and peaceful exercises in addressing the burdensome injustices and inequalities that Black Americans face every day.
Historically, the right to peacefully assemble has served as a foundation for change in the United States. However, our rights have limitations. We want to address these limitations and keep you informed of your rights under the First Amendment.
The threat of violence is a concern that local law enforcement and officials take seriously. For this reason, police presence at protests across the country is both visible and substantial. However, the presence of local law enforcement should never prevent you from peacefully exercising your rights. Simply put, if your actions do not present a threat to public safety, then you are lawfully exercising your First Amendment right to peacefully assemble.
What is considered a threat to public safety?
Inciting violence or obstructing traffic are the most common examples. However, local law enforcement and officials have the power to define a wide range of acts as threats to public safety.
I was stopped by a police officer while protesting, what are my rights?
Law enforcement officers do not have a right to stop, search, or detain you without “reasonable suspicion” that you have or will commit a crime. This means that in many cases you have the right to refuse a search. In these cases, ask the officer if you are being detained or are free to go. This will help protect you if tension escalates.
Do I have the right to take photos or videos at a public protest?
Yes. You have the right to take photos and videos in any public space as long as you are not impeding lawful police operations. Without a warrant, police cannot force you to take any action with respect to photos or videos that you take during a public protest. You can refuse an officer’s demand to see or confiscate any photos or videos you take.
I think my rights were violated, what can I do?
If you believe your rights were violated, you can file a formal complaint with your local law enforcement agency. If you are arrested during a public protest, do not resist or argue with the arresting officer. Instead, make sure that you document and collect any evidence that may help prove your innocence. Once you have been released, contact our team of attorneys as soon as possible—we will fight for your rights.
We encourage you to review this article each time you are preparing to organize or attend a protest. Staying informed is the best way to protect yourself and your rights.
To those who are grieving the loss of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and so many others: We see you, we hear you, and we stand with you.
Written by: Michelle Merson, Guy Fronstin, Tiffany Monroy