Some of the most defining events in U.S. history began with a protest. From the Boston Tea Party to the Stonewall Riots to the Black Lives Matter movement, protests have long been used as a critical vehicle for change. You can help protect yourself and others by understanding your rights before organizing or joining a protest.

Organizing a Protest

The 1st Amendment (Religion and Expression) protects your right to peacefully assemble, or protest. When choosing a location, look for spaces known as “traditional public forums,” like parks, streets, and sidewalks. If you’re protesting in front of a government building, don’t block access to the premises or interfere with its operations. What about blocking access to private buildings? Before assembling on private property, remember that the property owner has the right to set the rules of speech.

As long as you aren’t obstructing traffic, you don’t need a permit to march in the streets or on the sidewalks—but, without one, the police may ask you to move. If your event involves road closures, sound systems, or exceeds a specified size, you may need a permit. Permit applications can be a lengthy process, but the police can’t use these procedures to prevent a protest in response to breaking news events. If the permit requires a fee that you cannot afford, ask for a waiver.

Always remind attendants to protest safely and avoid engaging with counter protestors.

Attending a Protest

The 1st Amendment (Religion and Expression) protects many forms of expression, including the right to participate in peaceful protests. When in public places, you are also allowed to take photos and record videos of anything in plain view, including the police.

If possible, attend the protest with a friend or family member. During the demonstration, follow the lead of the organizers and avoid engaging with counter protestors. Remember, violence, property damage, and other crimes are not protected acts, even at protests.

If the police believe that there is an immediate threat to public safety, they may issue an order of dispersal. When a dispersal order is announced, officers must inform attendants of what exit route they need to follow, how much time they have to disperse, and the consequences of failing to do so. If you fail to disperse, you may be arrested, even if you aren’t committing an act of violence.

If you believe that your rights have been violated, document as much information as you can—photos and videos can be particularly useful in a court of law. Take note of the officers’ badge and patrol car numbers, photograph any injuries, and connect with other witnesses. After you’ve collected this information, you can file a complaint with the agency in question or pursue charges.

Questions & Answers

If I’m arrested during a protest, what is the best way to get help? 

  • The best way is to allow the officers to make the arrest, and then call an attorney.

If I see a police officer using excessive force or violence during a protest, what should I do? 

  • Do not physically interfere or you may be subject to arrest yourself. Most people have a cell phone with the ability to record audio and video, and I advise to record the arrest from a safe distance that doesn’t interfere.

If I encounter counter-protesters that are being aggressive or violating my rights, what should I do?

  • Tell law enforcement.