These days, tensions are high not only throughout the country, but around the world: the voicemail inboxes of elected officials are full, social media has been taken over by passionate discussions about the political actions of the Trump administration, and there are more marches and protesters out on the street than ever before.
The laws of our country give us the right to assemble and freedom of speech. We are encouraged to take part in our democracy and make sure our voices are heard. However, when news channels and social media posts show videos of police using pepper spray against protestors or arresting those who are assembling, it sends the opposite message.
These stories aren’t just taking place in New York or Los Angeles, either, but in our own backyard. In fact, three students at the University of Colorado – Boulder were just arrested in late January for protesting.
Milo Yiannopoulos is notorious for inciting violence through his hateful rhetoric. His speeches target women, Muslims, Jews, and other minorities. Yiannopoulos is also an editor for Breitbart, which is known for spreading white nationalist messages. While the University of Colorado-Boulder does not endorse Yiannopoulos’s message, the school still allowed him to speak on January 25.
Not surprisingly, hundreds of students gathered to protest his message. It went beyond simply showing up with picket signs, though. The e-mail list of ticket holders was hacked, and attendees were sent the message, “Tonight we will know your faces. The identity of attendees will be released to the public on a list of known neo-Nazi sympathizers.”
Police wore riot gear and corralled protesters standing outside the building where Yiannopoulos was speaking both before and after the event. Three students at the protest were arrested: a campus spokesperson said that the arrests were made on the grounds of failing to comply with officers’ orders and committing misdemeanor assault.
Those specific cases are still being hashed out, but their arrests speak to the broader fear and confusion out there. Many people just aren’t sure exactly what their rights are. What if you go out to a protest and get arrested? What if police threaten to, or actually do, hurt you?
Because of uncertainty, we decided to put together a guide to your right to protest so that you have a better understanding of what you are – and are not – allowed to do.
What Your Right to Protest Entails
Generally speaking, when you protest you have the Constitution and many state and federal laws on your side. The best way to fight back against law enforcement officers who attempt to unlawfully arrest or use force against you is to calmly and peacefully remind them of your rights.
To do that, though, you have to actually know what those rights are. Before you begin marching, we encourage you to read over the below.
You Have the Right to Free Speech – Even if your message is viewed as controversial, you have the right to speak freely in a protest. Your language cannot incite violate or threaten others, but merely expressing your opinion is lawful and allowed.
You Have the Right to Gather at a Public Forum – Peace officers have the right to take action if protestors are gathered on private property without the consent of the owner, and lobbies and other parts of buildings can become tricky spaces. However, public places like streets, sidewalks, and public parks are protected areas where protests are legally allowed to occur. That being said, if a march actually goes into the street a permit may be needed.
You Have the Right to Distribute Literature and Pamphlets – Just like we have the right to free assembly, we have the right to free speech. If your protest involves educating the public through leaflets, fliers, and so on, you have the right to distribute these to passersby and other protest participants. Tables may even be set up on sidewalks so literature and other propaganda can be distributed. As long as you are not impeding pedestrian walkways or blocking the entrance of buildings, you are acting within your constitutional rights.
You Have the Right to Protest an Event or Attend a Counter-Protest – Students gathered at the University of Colorado – Boulder to protest a speech, which is legal. Protesters may not disrupt an event, but can generally voice their opposition and gather. If counter-protesters gather, police have the right to create a barrier or separate the two groups, but they do not have the right to tell one group or another to leave if both are protesting within their rights.
If You Are Unlawfully Arrested
If police approach you while you are legally exercising your rights, they do not have grounds to arrest you. However, even if you are arrested unlawfully, you cannot resist arrest – a criminal charge in itself.
If you are unlawfully arrested, the best thing to do is reach out to a knowledgeable Colorado criminal defense lawyer to help you fight your charges using legal means. A skilled defense attorney may be able to get your charges dropped so that you will not have to face any consequences, but this is a lot harder if you also have to deal with accusations of resisting arrest.
About the Author:
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state. She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.