Attending a Protest
Above all, do what you can to keep yourself safe. Bring water, wear a mask, practice physical distancing, and let someone know where you will be. Remember that knowing your rights won’t always shield you.
You have the right to protest even if you don’t have a permit. As long as you stay on the sidewalk, obey traffic rules, and don’t obstruct traffic, your right to protest is constitutionally protected.
You have the right to record anything in plain view when you’re in a public space, including police officers doing their job. As long as you are a safe distance away and not interfering with their work, they can’t order you to stop.
Police cannot demand to view or confiscate any videos or photos you’ve taken without a warrant. They cannot delete data from your phone or other devices.
Watch our webinar about protest rights.
What to do if you're stopped by the police
- If you get stopped by police, ask if you're free to leave. If the officer says yes, calmly walk away.
- If you get arrested, ask for a lawyer immediately and say nothing else. Don't sign or agree to anything without a lawyer.
- Read more about your rights during police encounters.
What to do if you believe your rights have been violated
- When you can, write down everything you remember, including the officers’ badge and patrol car numbers and the agency they work for.
- Get contact information for witnesses.
- Take photographs of any injuries.
- Once you have all of this information, you can file a written complaint with the agency’s internal affairs division or civilian complaint board.
Organizing a protest
- Your rights are strongest in what are known as “traditional public forums,” such as streets, sidewalks, and parks. You also likely have the right to speak out on other public property, like plazas in front of government buildings, as long as you are not blocking access to the government building or interfering with other purposes the property was designed for.
- Counterprotesters also have free speech rights. Police must treat protesters and counterprotesters equally. Police are permitted to keep antagonistic groups separated but should allow them to be within sight and sound of one another.
Do I need a permit?
- You don’t need a permit to march in the streets or on sidewalks, as long as marchers don’t obstruct car or pedestrian traffic. If you don’t have a permit, police officers can ask you to move to the side of a street or sidewalk to let others pass or for safety reasons.
- Certain types of events may require permits. These include a march or parade that requires blocking traffic or street closure; a large rally requiring the use of sound amplifying devices; or a rally over a certain size at most parks or plazas.
- While certain permit procedures require submitting an application well in advance of the planned event, police can’t use those procedures to prevent a protest in response to breaking news events.
- Restrictions on the route of a march or sound equipment might violate the First Amendment if they are unnecessary for traffic control or public safety, or if they interfere significantly with effective communication to the intended audience.
- A permit cannot be denied because the event is controversial or will express unpopular views.
- If the permit regulations that apply to your protest require a fee for a permit, they should allow a waiver for those who cannot afford the charge.
What happens if the police issues an order to disperse the protest?
- Shutting down a protest through a dispersal order must be law enforcement’s last resort. Police may not break up a gathering unless there is a clear and present danger of riot, disorder, interference with traffic, or other immediate threat to public safety.
- If officers issue a dispersal order, they must provide a reasonable opportunity to comply, including sufficient time and a clear, unobstructed exit path.
- Individuals must receive clear and detailed notice of a dispersal order, including how much time they have to disperse, the consequences of failing to disperse, and what clear exit route they can follow, before they may be arrested or charged with any crime.