What are your rights to protest in public?

In 2017, the Women's March was the single greatest day of protest in American history. It brought major cities worldwide to a halt, stopping traffic and overwhelming the streets. Lee Rowland explains the rights we have to protest on streets and sidewalks and the limitations.


  Lee Rowland is the Interim Policy Director at the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Additional Resources

First Amendment right to protest guide and FAQ's for Demstrations and Protests, prepared and provided by the National ACLU.

What are your rights to protest in public? Brief Transcript

In 2017, the Woman's March was the single greatest day of protest in American History, so far. And it brought Washington, DC to a halt--stopping traffic, overwhelming the streets. And that was just in DC. Marches in other cities shut down traffic there too. What are your rights to protest on streets and sidewalks? We'll discuss that in just a minute. My name is Lee Rowland. I'm a First Amendment attorney with the National ACLU.

Under the First Amendment, the courts have identified a few areas that are termed "public forums." What that means are places where your First Amendment rights are at their absolutely most robust. Those three places are streets, sidewalks, and public parks. So what rights do you have to engage in speech, association, and protest in those public forum places. So the answer is you have a lot of rights. But you can have more rights when you have a permit and that includes blocking the streets. So, the Women's March is a great example of a protest that involved permits to block traffic and block the streets. As images from Washington DC from January 2017 show, you would have been hard-pressed to drive a car down the streets pretty much anywhere in downtown DC on the day of the Woman's March. Traffic couldn't get through, and yet, despite that standstill, there was not a singe arrest of any protestor. Was this ok? Were these protestors protected when they shut down the streets of Washington, DC? The answer is absolutely.

The organizers of the Women's March reached out to Metro Police in DC and got permits to do precisely what those powerful images showed us, flood the streets thousands-strong, hundreds-of-thousands-strong. Now could you just go out on a Saturday with 200 of your closest friends and shut down your street. That's a little more complicated. As a general rule the First Amendment permits you to engage in speech to engage in protest on streets and sidewalks and parks with a pretty big asterisk. You cannot, without a permit, engage in intentional obstruction. That just means getting in the way. So if you're in the street you can't intentionally jump out in front of a car, and if you're in a park you can't block the way so that no other pedestrians can use the park. Same goes for sidewalks, so if you're on a sidewalk and you for someone to go out into the street because you're blocking the sidewalk, that can be a problem.

In practice, that means when you go out to protest on a sidewalk, you do it one or two people deep. In practice, if you're going to march down the street, you have to stay in the breakdown lane. And in a park it means that you have to make sure that there are paths for other pedestrians to go through and walk around your protest. So you have an absolute First Amendment right to get out there and make your voice heard. You do not, without a permit, have an absolute right to intentionally gather to stop traffic whether it's vehicle or pedestrian traffic, under the First Amendment. My name is Lee Rowland. I'm a free speech attorney with the National ACLU and thanks for watching TalksOnLaw.