Making Your Voice Heard: Rallying Public Support–Legally!

Posted October 11, 2011 in Jury Awards by

For nearly a month, a group calling itself Occupy Wall Street has been protesting the influence that big businesses have over laws and government, as well as the alleged greed and corruption of businesses and wealthy Americans. In recent days, the demonstrations have spread to other cities, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington, DC.

In part because the Occupy movement is leaderless, the tone and nature of these protests seems to change from day to day and city to city. (The list of demands changes, as well.)

For the most part, the demonstrations have been peaceful, though there have been isolated incidents where protesters have clashed with police and arrests have been made. The largest group of arrests occurred about 10 days ago when New York protesters—who had been camped out on private property—decided to march across the Brooklyn Bridge. New York police said about 700 were arrested in that incident.

Whether you’re part of the Occupy movement or rallying for another cause, how can you make your voice heard and do it legally?

Public Demonstration Laws

The First Amendment to the US Constitution gives Americans the right to free speech and to peacefully protest, saying:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances (emphasis Lawyers.com).

Before rallying, you should be familiar with local laws that address demonstrations, rallies, protests, marches and the like. Laws vary from city to city and state to state, but in general you may need a permit if you’re planning to use public property.

If your protest sticks to private property, you’ll need the land owner’s permission, but probably won’t need a permit. The owner’s permission is crucial, however, otherwise you run the risk of being arrested and charged with trespassing.

The permit may seem as if it’s in direct violation of the First Amendment, but that’s not necessarily the case. Think of it this way: Giving local officials the heads up is for your safety as well as the safety of others. It allows government officials to shut down streets, reroute traffic and separate groups of protesters if there’s a possibility of violent clashes.

A civil rights lawyer or attorney who’s familiar with the local government can help you obtain a permit for your protest.

Preparing to be Arrested

Most of us don’t want a criminal record. But for some protesters, one of their goals is to get arrested.

Why? In part because it generates media coverage and draws attention to their cause. Others don’t necessarily want to be arrested, but accept that it’s a risk which comes with supporting their cause.

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“There are a few things someone should keep in mind if he’s arrested at a protest: Always keep quiet and if you want to complain at the scene or tell the police they’re wrong, do so in a non-confrontational way that will not intensify the scene,” says New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “It’s also good to remember the arresting officer’s name and badge number and to never resist—even if you believe you’re innocent. And finally, don’t make any statements regarding the incident and ask for a lawyer immediately.”

Before putting yourself in a position where you might be arrested, ask yourself some questions:

  • Am I passionate enough about this cause that I’m willing to be arrested and deal with the consequences, which can be long lasting?
  • Can I afford to hire a lawyer and pay fines, if convicted? Am I prepared to serve time in jail?
  • Is my job at risk if I am arrested? Would a criminal record affect my future employment?

Leaders of well-organized demonstrations may give participants some rules to follow if they are arrested. These may include:

  • Have a picture ID on you during the protest.
  • Have the name of a lawyer handy and, if possible, give the attorney a heads up to let him know you might be arrested and needing legal help.
  • Also carry with you essential medications in their original bottles in case you’re detained for long.
  • Don’t bring weapons, alcohol or illegal drugs to a demonstration.

After you’re arrested, you’ll probably be cuffed and taken to a holding area before transport to a police station.

Once you get to the police station, you’ll be fingerprinted and photographed. Then you’ll probably wait in a holding cell until you’re taken before a judge. (If a lot of protesters are arrested, you’ll probably spend a lot of time sitting around and waiting for something to happen.)

The judge may ask whether you’re guilty, and will then decide whether to release you until your trial. Assuming you weren’t charged with something serious—burning down a building during the protest, beating up a cop, throwing a Molotov cocktail—you’ll probably be released. A final word of warning: Don’t get arrested again while out on bail! The judge may not be as happy to see you the second time around.

Jennifer E. King co-authors the Lawyers.com blog.

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