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Know your protest rights: 'It can be raucous, it can be loud, it can be angry'

This past week, hundreds of people took to the streets to express outrage at a judge’s decision to find former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley not guilty of first-degree murder in the 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith.

The protests largely have been peaceful. But police have made numerous arrests since the demonstrations began. On Sunday alone, police made 123 arrests — largely on a charge of failure to disperse. They also charged a few people with the destruction of property or assault. 

Under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, people have a right to express dissent and petition the government for change. But in encounters with police, protesters should know their rights, said Jeffery Mittman, executive director for American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.

 “What is protected is nonviolent protest,” Mittman said. “It can be raucous, it can be loud, it can be angry. And we have the right to tell the government in our public spaces, sidewalks, parks, public squares, in front of public buildings that we want them to hear our voices.”

Here’s what is protected:

  • Assemble peacefully: Protesters have the right to congregate in public spaces such as parks, sidewalks, public squares and in front of public buildings. 
  • Assemble without a permit: Protesters can gather without having previously received permission from the city. 
  • Make your opinion known: People have the right to express frustration and dissatisfaction with authorities and public officials, but may not do so by instigating or calling for violence.
  • Photograph, videotape, or record police: The First Amendment protects the right to document, take notes, tape, photograph, stream all interactions between police and protesters.

However, the right to protest is limited. Although the First Amendment can be interpreted to provide broad coverage for protest actions in Missouri, there are gray areas that allow police to set boundaries that protesters must follow, Mittman said. 

“For example, we don’t have the right to have a noisy, raucous, protests at 2 a.m. in a residential neighborhood, generally,” he said. “Violent criminal activity is not protected speech.” 

Here’s what isn’t protected:

  • The government and the police can issue reasonable “place, time and manner restrictions,” which means they can evaluate conditions and impose restrictions on the protest.
  • The First Amendment does not protect for violent or destructive behavior. Throwing objects at police or destroying property is not protected behavior. 
  • While the public has every right to document police interactions with protesters, people cannot document in a way that interferes with police actions or their physical space.

When police give orders, the ACLU encourages people to follow them, do as instructed, and document the experience through photos, videos, audio recordings, and notes. That information can help the ACLU evaluate whether police have violated a person’s constitutional rights. The organization encourages people to submit that documentation online and through its app.

Mittman said protesters should write down the event, the time, the location, how many people were involved, identifying information, license plate, and the names of any witnesses. 

“The more contemporaneous information an individual can provide, the better it is, the stronger we are able to make a case that a violation of your right or of anyone’s right has occurred,” Mittman said.

Follow Willis on Twitter: @WillisRArnold

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