Know Your Rights on the Picket Line

( – Staging and participating in protests is as American as apple pie. Disagree? Then, how do you explain the Boston Tea Party? Either way, public officials don’t always embrace participants’ constitutionally protected right to assembly and freedom of speech and frequently infringe on them with impunity. For that reason, it is essential to know your rights when hitting the picket line to demonstrate for fair wages.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been working to preserve and defend the individual liberties and rights guaranteed to all Americans by the US Constitution for more than a century. The nonprofit organization recently published a detailed guide to help protesters understand the dos and don’ts of publicly assembling and expressing their viewpoints. As the report noted, brushing up on your rights before hitting the streets is important.

The ACLU detailed five important rights protesters enjoy whether they are picketing for higher wages and better working conditions or demonstrating about a social or political cause.

Protesters and picketers, regardless of their particular cause, can:

  1. March on public sidewalks or streets without a permit. However, participants must be mindful to avoid obstructing pedestrian or car traffic.
  2. Speak out in “traditional public forums” like parks, plazas in front of government-owned buildings, and other publicly-owned property. However, you must avoid blocking access to structures or facilities.
  3. Photograph and film anything and anyone in public view. That right includes federal buildings, workers, and law enforcement officials.
  4. Speak and otherwise express themselves freely on private property. Government officials don’t have the authority to restrict what you say on your property or if you have the owner’s consent to assemble there.
  5. Counterprotest against others. Law enforcement officials must treat both sides equally. However, this rule only applies to public spaces, your property, or if you have permission from the owner.

If you think your rights have been violated, the ACLU urges you to record patrol car and police officers’ badge numbers and their agency. Likewise, you should write a brief account of what happened, photograph the scene and any injuries, and obtain contact information from witnesses. Once you compile that information, you can file an official complaint with the agency’s civilian complaint board or internal affairs division.

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