TODAY’S QUESTION: limits of protest

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Today the U.S. Supreme Court held that, 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.

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