I was speaking with my dear friend and classmate from Xavier University of Louisiana recently, and I was disturbed by some of the things she was enduring. Tara is a resident of St. Louis, Missouri and like many others in our country, she has become fed up with perceived and actual police abuses in our communities. Tara told me she had been protesting the conduct of her government in Ferguson, Missouri and specifically the killing of Mr. Michael Brown. This was not what disturbed me. I was very excited my friend and classmate was exercising her First Amendment Rights by protesting and assembling to challenge the conduct of the government. What disturbed me is that my dear friend had been arrested for her actions.
Tara told me, “initially we didn’t think that anybody necessarily knew what to do so we took to the streets.” Tara went on to tell me that, “we’ve been tear-gassed, threatened, shot with rubber bullets for protesting , which is our right.” Tara is my friend and I did not want to hear about the treatment that she was enduring for simply exercising her right to protest.
Martin Luther King Jr. said on March 14, 1968, “a riot is the language of the unheard” while still saying that peaceful protest and none violence was the way to accomplish meaningful gains.
So how do you lawfully engage in protest ? After talking with Tara, she had lots of questions regarding why she was being victimized and what were her rights in regards to her protest.
1) Where can I protest?
The Constitution protects your right to protest in “public forums”, meaning parks, sidewalks, streets, government buildings and government meetings. The government can set up some restrictions like requiring permits for big groups use of public space or limit the times and manner by which you protest. The government can also put restrictions of sound systems and the volume of music .
2) Can I protest on private property?
Private property owner may limit or restrict a person’s ability to protest. Private property owners, be it a homeowner or a department store, may prohibit protests on their property and can get a person arrested for trespassing if the person refuses to leave. However, if the property owner allows it, the protest may be continued.
3) Can I set up a picket line on public land in front of private property?
You can almost always picket on public sidewalk but it must be done in a peaceful and none disruptive manner so that other persons using the public sidewalk may have use in spite of your protest.
4) What do I do if the Police approach me?
The answer to this questions varies from state to state but generally you want to ask if you are under arrest. In some states, like Louisiana, you are required to identify yourself by at least providing your name and address. If you refuse, you can be arrested. Make sure you point out that you are exercising your First Amendment right to protest and ask if you are free to leave. If so, proceed on away from law enforcement and continue your protest.
5) What do I do if law enforcement violates my rights?
Your peaceful protest is not the place to try to hash out differences in opinion between you and law enforcement on what your rights are and how they are being violated. Make sure to take notes regarding the encounter with law enforcement including names, badge numbers, and details of the incident. Take down the names and contact information of witnesses that can state what happened. In no instance should you feel like you have to take things into your own hands. Always remember that the justice system can be used as a shield as well as a sword. A good attorney can take this information and protect you as well as attack any type of violation of your rights.
Unfortunately, Tara’s civil rights were violated. However, I am glad that I could provide her assistance on how she can be more informed as she continues to challenge the conduct of the local government in Ferguson, Missouri.
If you feel your civil rights have been violated, feel free to contact The Law Offices of John S. Williams for a free consultation, (504) 486-0300.