Frequently Asked Questions – Assembly

Is there such a thing as ‘guilt by association’?

Simply attending peaceful meetings of an organization will not make a person guilty, even if other members of that organization commit lawless acts. Guilt can be shared only if the organization and its members have a common plan to break the law.

Can what a customer wears in a shopping mall be restricted?

In most cases, yes. Most states consider shopping malls to be the private property of the mall owner. Just as with any piece of private property, owners can make rules regarding that property, including what is appropriate attire; think of “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”

In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case Hudgens v. National Labor Relations Board. This case involved a group of labor union members who were picketing inside a privately owned mall. The union members filed suit claiming, in part, that their First Amendment free-speech rights had been violated after they were asked to leave the premises or be arrested for criminal trespass. The court looked at past cases and found that the First Amendment does not prevent a property owner from restricting the exercise of free speech on private property, in this instance the shopping mall. So, for example, if a mall shopper were asked to cover a shirt that the mall owners found to be offensive, the shopper would have to comply or leave.

New Jersey and California have found their state constitutions to provide more freedoms than the U.S. Constitution — meaning that in these states constitutional rights to free speech can prevail over the private-property interests of mall owners. See Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins (1980). However, most states that have addressed this issue have found in favor of property owners.

What is the difference between the freedom of assembly and the freedom of association?

Freedom of assembly is explicitly guaranteed in the First Amendment, securing the right of people to meet for any purpose connected with government. Freedom of association protects the activities and composition of such meetings. This right is not explicitly set out in the Constitution but is instead derived from fundamental privacy interests and the rights of speech, petition and assembly.

What kinds of associations are protected?

Any and every group is allowed to meet to discuss ideas and peaceably promote its point of view, even if that message is distasteful to others. Whether through parades, peaceful protests, picketing or simply sharing ideas, an organization formed for expressive purposes may engage in “group speech” to advance its mission. Freedom of association also protects the gathering of people for personal, private purposes, such as the meeting of family members.

When can the government restrict associations?

Groups that wish to engage in public activism must abide by generally applicable laws, such as criminal trespass or prohibitions on litter, excess noise, crowd congestion and permit requirements. If the government seeks to intervene in the internal affairs of group in a way that impairs its advocacy, the regulation must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest that outweighs any burden on the group’s speech.

How broad is the freedom of association?

This freedom protects the right of people to meet and publicly support a cause or message. It also protects the right of people not to be affiliated with certain messages or ideas. For example, the government cannot force expressive associations to accept unwanted members who would impair the effectiveness of the group. Nor can the government force people to support undesirable causes through required fees or dues as part of belonging to a group.

What role did the First Amendment play in the civil rights movement?

The movement drew upon several First Amendment freedoms — primarily speech, assembly and petition — to protest racial injustice and promote racial equality. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court strengthened these First Amendment freedoms through its rulings in court cases arising out of the civil rights movement.

Why do legislatures and judges pass or approve of buffer zones around abortion clinics?

In some cases, anti-abortion demonstrators physically obstruct and/or intimidate those entering and exiting abortion clinics. Legislatures and judges create and permit buffer zones to ensure that people can work safely at the clinics and that women have access to them.

Do individuals have First Amendment rights on others’ private property?

Generally no. The Bill of Rights provides protection for individual liberty from actions by government officials. This is called the state-action doctrine. Private property is not government-owned. Restrictions on individuals’ free-speech rights on private property do not involve state action.

However, a few states have interpreted their own state constitutions to provide even greater free-speech protection than the federal Constitution offers. For example, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that individuals have free-speech rights at privately owned shopping malls. Most state supreme courts that have examined the issue have disagreed. In April 2002, the Iowa Supreme Court refused to extend its definition of public property to include large, privately owned shopping malls.

Has the U.S. Supreme Court addressed any case involving funeral-protest legislation?

A case in the upcoming 2010 term, Snyder v. Phelps, involves whether a verdict assessing damages against the Westboro Baptist Church for a protest causing emotional distress to a soldier’s family violates the First Amendment.

In a somewhat related case, the Court in Frisby v. Schultz (1988) upheld a Wisconsin city ordinance banning picketing in front of private residences. “The type of picketers banned by the Brookfield ordinance generally do not seek to disseminate a message to the general public, but to intrude upon the targeted resident, and to do so in an especially offensive way,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the Court. The Court has also decided a series of cases involving limitations on abortion protesters outside clinics. For example, in Hill v. Colorado (2001), a divided Court (6-3) upheld a Colorado law that imposed an 8-foot floating buffer zone between protesters and those entering and leaving abortion facilities. However, it remains an open question whether funeral-picketing measures are constitutional.

How might a law banning protests at funerals discriminate on the basis of viewpoint?

A law discriminates on the basis of viewpoint if it singles out a specific point of view for regulation. Consider a protest at a military funeral in which demonstrators denigrated the soldier and offended family members. If government officials punished that protest, but allowed a demonstration praising the deceased, a serious charge of viewpoint discrimination could be leveled because only protesters advocating a specific type of message were targeted.

When and where can I protest without fear of being arrested?

The U.S. Supreme Court held on Feb. 28, 2006, in a case involving anti-abortion protests, that federal extortion and racketeering laws cannot be used to ban demonstrations. Use of those laws against protesters also was opposed by unions and a variety of social activists. Many states currently are considering laws that would ban protests at funerals, but those bans would be based on different kinds of laws. The proposed state bans often set out time limits starting before and ending after funeral services; or map out physical distances to separate families from demonstrators.

As a general rule, the government cannot ban speech — including public protests — because of the protest’s “content,” or subject matter. Government can restrict the time, place and manner of the speech in order to meet a higher need, such as public safety. What a demonstrator might say without challenge at noon in the public square likely would have First Amendment protection, while that same speech at midnight under an apartment building window likely would not.

Do we have an unfettered right to protest on government property?

No. The government can limit such protests depending on several factors. First, violent protests are outlawed anywhere. The text of the First Amendment provides for “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” The key word is “peaceably” — violent protesting is not allowed.

Second, not all government property is treated the same for First Amendment purposes. The U.S. Supreme Court has established the public-forum doctrine to examine whether certain types of public property are open to First Amendment expressive activity. These categories include traditional public forums, limited or designated public forums and nonpublic forums. Still other government property is not considered a forum at all.

First Amendment rights apply the most in a traditional public forum, such as a public park. In its 1939 decision Hague v. C.I.O. the U.S. Supreme Court explained: “Wherever the title of streets and parks may rest, they have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions.”

The general rule is that government officials may not impose content-based restrictions on speech in a public forum. This means that city officials must not treat different persons and groups of persons differently on the basis of the content (and viewpoint) of their messages. The government can justify content-based speech restrictions only by showing that it has a compelling state interest in imposing them (such as safety or security concerns), and that it has done so in a narrowly tailored way. Even in a public forum, the government may impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions that are content-neutral, leave open ample, alternative ways for expression and are narrowly tailored. This means that city officials could limit protests to certain hours of the day and perhaps certain locations. Again, the key terms are “reasonable” and “content-neutral.”

The next category is a limited or designated public forum (though some lower courts distinguish between limited and designated — see discussion in Speaking at public meetings section).

In a limited public forum (such as a meeting room on a public college campus that is frequently used by outside groups), the government designates the certain types of subject matter that can be discussed at the location. After the government has created such a forum, setting boundaries on classes of speakers or topics, the government must meet the standards of a traditional public forum; namely, restrictions on speech must be reasonable and viewpoint-neutral. The theory is that when the government opens a forum up to the public, it shouldn’t be able to skew discussions by over-regulating expression.

Still another category is the nonpublic forum, a place where the government has greater leeway for control, as restrictions on expression must only be reasonable and viewpoint-neutral. What this means is that the right to protest is often affected by the location and purpose of the government property where the protest takes place. In United States v. Grace (1983), the U.S. Supreme Court wrote that the “public sidewalks forming the perimeter of the Supreme Court grounds, in our view, are public forums and should be treated as such for First Amendment purposes.” The same protest rights would not apply inside the Supreme Court building or on the steps right outside the Court. In U.S. v. Kokinda (1990), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that postal sidewalks were not public forums, writing that they do “not have the characteristics of public sidewalks traditionally open to expressive activity.” The Court clarified that “the location and purpose of a publicly owned sidewalk is critical to determining whether such a sidewalk constitutes a public forum.”

In sum, there is no unfettered right to protest on government property. Protests must be peaceable, and the government has the right to impose content-neutral, reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on expression. Furthermore, as the Supreme Court said in Kokinda, “the government’s ownership of property does not automatically open that property to the public.”

The government has greater power to regulate expression when it acts as a proprietor controlling its internal operations than it does as a sovereign lawmaker. This means that government officials could limit protests inside a courthouse because the government has important operations to conduct. It must be able to control its operations to carry out its functions. The government must be able to carry on its own speech and expression free from interference. Contrast this with the public sidewalks two blocks from a courthouse. Here, the government cannot argue that it is conducting its own internal operations. Speech restrictions there would implicate a forum analysis and trigger a higher degree of judicial scrutiny.