The First Amendment of the United States Constitution says a lot of very important things. One of them grants ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’
What does that mean, exactly?
Well, on the surface, it means that you can gather anywhere you want, so long as it is peaceable, and that you can ask the Government to fix what is broken.
Of course, nothing is as simple as it sounds. While the right to peaceable assembly sounds great – does it mean that you can just show up on someone’s lawn with all your friends and have a barbecue with your friends so long as you don’t start a fight? Does it mean you can block traffic or hold up the orderly flow of business so long as it is peaceable? And what exactly is a “petition” to the Government for a “redress of grievances”?
Taken in historical context, the founders of our country were breaking free from an environment in which criticism of the government and the right of revolutionaries to gather were severely restricted. This Amendment was passed in large part to ensure that the people were in charge of the government – it was designed to ensure that they could talk to each other, and form groups, and ask questions and challenge the decisions of the government.
Often rights conflict. We have property rights (See John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Civil Government” and the “Universal Declaration on Human Rights.”) We have the right to travel freely within the country. The right to peaceably assemble, like other rights granted by the Constitution can be restricted so long as the restrictions a) reflect a compelling governmental interest; b) the law is narrowly tailored to reach that goal; and c) the law is the least restrictive means necessary to achieve that goal.
So what does that mean in the real world?
Let’s say there are people who wish to petition the Government to redress a grievance, that is, complain about a law that was recently proposed. The form of complaint they choose is a silent protest. They plan to simply sit down and say nothing and let their signs and pamphlets do the talking.
Likely, if it is more than a handful of people, they will have to apply for a permit. Permits are allowable, generally speaking, because the government has a compelling interest in ensuring that life goes on without disruption for the majority of its citizens. A large gathering of people can interfere with people’s ability to get to their jobs and their children, and may interfere with public safety’s ability to do its job. There may be fire concerns.
Whether or not the law is narrowly tailored is a more difficult question. If you need a permit for four or more people to gather, well, that would mean you need a permit for a lunch date, and that isn’t narrowly tailored. The law has to particularly target the compelling government interest and achieve that goal.
And is the law the least restrictive means? If you need to apply six months in advance and have a separate tax ID number for your non-profit, that seems a little much and designed solely for the purpose of preventing assembly.
This is a complicated issue, difficult to condense into a short article like this. There are many resources in libraries and on the internet which can give you more information.
Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes only. No lawyer can advise you about your case without hearing the particulars of your situation.