By Aviance Brown
With all of the recent instances of injustice occurring around the nation, we have seen masses of people turning out into the streets and sidewalks, plazas and public parks—all to exercise their fundamental, constitutional right to protest. The Unites States Constitution grants each of us the right to peaceably assemble. For centuries, brave individuals have come together to express opposition for injustice in all of its forms, a right that must continue to be preserved.
Several Republican legislators have also assembled in their own right to limit and, in some instances, prohibit this right. Recently, there have been several bills introduced that try to limit the rights that people have when they exercise their first amendment rights. Last year, the governor of South Dakota signed a bill that capped the number of people who can gather in a public space to 20 people. Legislators in Minnesota introduced a bill that would allow organizers to be sued for the cost of law enforcement present to police their protests.
Here in North Carolina, our House of Representatives passed a bill that would protect drivers who may hit protesters, if the protestors have illegally or otherwise blocked a public roadway, from civil lawsuits to collect damages. Ordinarily, a pedestrian or other person who is hit by a car may be able to seek damages—money for injuries, hospital bills and treatment, lost wages, etc.—from the driver or the car. This is done by filing a civil lawsuit. House Bill 330 creates an exception to this ability. Under the new law, drivers cannot not be held civilly liable if or when they hit a protestor, so long as they were exercising due care while driving. House Bill 330 was passed in the House on April 27, 2017. The bill is presently in the hands of a Senate sub-committee, where it will remain until the next legislative session. This means that it has not officially been passed as a law. However, the issue may be brought back up when the General Assembly meets in 2018.
Lawmakers across the nation have also created bills that make harsher punishments for those who are arrested at protests. Several states have introduced legislation that would make it a misdemeanor to block public highways and streets while protesting. Misdemeanors can carry up to one year in jail and have associated fines ranging from ten or twenty dollars to hundreds of dollars in court costs, penalties and associated fees.
Students on college campuses have always been very vocal and active. With concerns that this activism will disrupt educational settings, administrators at many universities across the nation are creating “free-speech zones” on their campuses. Such zones are intended to be used for demonstrations and the exercise of First Amendment activity, which sounds fine at first. However, this poses as an issue for many who feel that the entire campus should be a free-speech zone in which they can exercise their rights wherever they desire.
The important take away for those who do wish to engage in demonstrations is that at the core of Constitution lies the right to gather in a peaceful manner for any cause one sees fit. Public assembly is a bedrock principle, both in our democratic existence and our social history. If it was not so important, people would not be actively trying to oppress this right.
Below is a brief list, compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), of foundational rights that you and any other protester or activist have when participating in protests, assemblies or demonstrations in public spaces. (Note: these do not necessarily apply when using speech on private property):
You have a right to exercise free speech, even if it is controversial, in public forums such as sidewalks, streets, and public parks. There are some places that require you to have a permit in order demonstrate. Check your local ordinances for the application information.
You ABSOLUTELY have a right to take photos or videos while on public property. You are not required to turn those videos or photos over to law enforcement if they don’t have a warrant or other court order.
Officers can stop all activities that are interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations.