The vast majority of protests are conducted peacefully and legally, but if you're new to protesting, be sure to attend a few organized protests before trying to organize your own.
How to Protest Legally
In the United States, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from abridging your freedom of speech. This does not mean that you can protest anywhere you like in any way you like. What this means is that in a traditional public forum, the government cannot stop you from expressing yourself, but can impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. A traditional public forum is a location where people have traditionally expressed themselves to the public, getting up on proverbial soap boxes or handing out leaflets. This includes public streets, sidewalks and parks. So while the government cannot stop you from protesting in a public park, they can impose limits on the noise level or prohibit protesters from blocking the park entrance. This also means that you have a right to protest on the public sidewalk in front of a fur store, but not on the fur store's private property.
Some people confuse government action with private action. The First Amendment does not apply to restrictions imposed by private individuals or companies, although other laws or parts of the Constitution or Bill of Rights might apply. This means that the government cannot stop the publication of a book that contains controversial protected speech, but a private book store can decide for itself that they won't carry that book.
Your best bet for a legal protest is to get a protest permit from the local police, but not every police department issues or requires protest permits. If you're concerned, ask the organizers if they have a permit, and what the restrictions on the protest are.
The protest permit may limit the hours of the protest, or prohibit amplified sound. Protesters are sometimes required to keep moving along the sidewalk to avoid blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians and to keep driveways and building entrances clear. Some towns may also prohibit sticks, so be prepared to remove any sticks from your protest sign, just in case.
If the terms of the protest permit seem unreasonable, don't be afraid to speak up and contact an attorney.
Even if no protest permit is required, it's smart to notify the police of your intentions, to give the police time to prepare and schedule officers for safety and crowd control. It also holds your place in case someone else decides to hold a protest at the same time and location.
At the Protest
While you're at the protest, use common sense. You can't control the public and you can't control the police, but you can control yourself. For a peaceful, legal protest, comply with the terms of the protest permit, the instructions of the protest organizers, and with the instructions of the police. Try to ignore hecklers who just want to fluster you.
I wish I could say that the police are only there for everyone's safety, which is true most of the time. But there are definitely instances when the police will try to infringe on your free speech rights because they disagree with you. They may try to enforce arcane laws against you or impose restrictions that aren't mentioned in the protest permit. You might be in full compliance with all laws and the protest permit, and then suddenly be threatened with arrest if you don't comply with some new, arbitrary requirement that was made up by an officer on the spot. Inform the protest organizers, who may have an attorney they can call.
Arrests at protests are rare, but participants sometimes intend to get arrested at a protest. Civil disobedience is, by definition, illegal. Responsible protest organizers may plan an act of civil disobedience (such as a sit-in) at a protest but will not knowingly put you at risk of being arrested unless you choose to take that risk. While civil disobedience is illegal, it is peaceful and helps spread the message of the protest by increasing media coverage and/or disrupting the target of the protest.
The information on this website is not legal advice and is not a substitute for legal advice. For legal advice, please consult an attorney.
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