If ever there was a time Americans are exercising their rights as citizens, this is it. 2020 has seen thousands of protests across the country with individuals joining forces to advocate for civil rights, public health and economic equality.
At the end of May, the nation watched cell phone video of a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, for eight minutes, until he was dead. Floyd’s death, one in a string of deaths of African Americans connected to police brutality in recent months, was the last straw. It set off protests across the country that are still ongoing.
This spring and summer, because of the frustration over the national stay-at-home orders and the failing economy during the pandemic, small business owners stepped out in unison demanding leaders “reopen’’ the economy so they could save their livelihood.
In August, teachers from coast-to-coast, took to the streets and through digital platforms, voicing their fear and frustrations of the government’s decision to reopen schools while the COVID-19 virus is still not under control.
Young people carry the torch when it comes to demanding change. Historically, college-aged young adults led movements to change the status quo, dismantling the oppression of disenfranchised people, i.e., the civil rights movement and protests of the Vietnam war. The demands for change by young adults are still happening today. In Texas, earlier this month, Southern Methodist University (SMU) students and members of the Highland Park community joined forces in protest over inequities facing African Americans in the Dallas area. SMU students asked administrators to look into racism reports on campus and create more funding for black students.
It is indeed every Americans’ and every Texans’ right to protest. For proof, just look at the Texas Constitution, Article I, Section 27, where it states, “The citizens shall have the right, in a peaceable manner, to assemble together for their common good.’’
However, it is important protestors stay safe and within the law. So before you mask up and hit the street, here are some guidelines for protesting in Texas.
Who can protest?
Every American citizen has the right to assemble peacefully and air their grievances, but these rights are not unconditional. Because government officials need to maintain public safety and order, protest activities may be restricted.
For non-citizens, it could be more challenging to engage in protests. Due to the September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent creation of the Patriot Act, non-citizens are subject to police scrutiny. The act allows surveillance and investigation of those who are not permanent residents concerning “domestic terrorism.’’ Therefore immigrants who engage in protests should be aware of law enforcement’s increased authority.
What if my views are controversial?
No matter how controversial your opinions are, even critical views of the government, citizens always have a right to express themselves. They can express them through writing, art or verbally, including with others at group protests. However, if the views incite imminent lawless action and violence during a protest, law enforcement can act.
Where can you protest?
Citizens can hold protests at what are traditionally called “public forums.’’ These include public streets, sidewalks and parks. You can also protest on public plazas found at government buildings.
It is essential to understand the different regulations associated with government properties before organizing a protest. For example, many government-owned properties are leased by private groups (think museums, foundations and historical societies). To protest on these types of public/private properties, you must have permission from the person or entity leasing it. If they grant permission, remember, they are allowed to set rules for the speech given on the property.
Do I need a permit?
If you know your event will draw a crowd, make sure you understand the location’s restrictions. You don’t need a permit to march in the streets and sidewalks if traffic is not obstructed but be prepared for police officers to ask you to move to the side to let others pass.
If your event is a march, parade or rally requiring a street closure or requires blocking traffic, a permit will be necessary. Also, if you need large audio equipment, you can expect to file the required paperwork.
Remember, this is your government. A permit cannot be denied because of the controversial subject matter or the expression of unpopular views. If a fee is required, the governmental entity should work with you if you can’t afford it.
The more planning you do, and communicating with your local government on the specific requirements, the more successful the protest will be.
Have you heard the term dispersal order?
As long as you are protesting on public property, not interfering with traffic, and have public safety in mind, law enforcement should work with you. A dispersal order comes into play when the protestors are deemed hazardous.
The police do have the right to issue a dispersal order if the gathering is holding a clear and present danger of a riot, interference with traffic or a threat to the physical safety of those in the area. Yet, at the same time, shutting down a protest through a dispersal order should be law enforcement’s last resort.
If the police tell you that the protest must disperse, they must provide a detailed notice of the dispersal order and allow a reasonable and clear amount of time for participants to comply. They must also give the protestors an exit path with no blockage by law enforcement.
Other protesting tips to consider
Counter-protesters also have the right to free speech. Police must treat protesters and counter-protesters equally. Police are permitted to keep antagonistic groups separated but should allow them to be within sight and sound of one another.
When you are lawfully present in any public space, you can photograph anything in plain view, including federal buildings and the police. On private property, the owner may set rules related to photography or video.
Be conscientious about your actions. Don’t argue. Anything you say or do can be used against you. Arguing or fighting may give police an excuse to arrest you.
If you are stopped on foot and have not been detained, you don’t have to answer officers’ questions. The police may pat down your clothing if they suspect that you are concealing a weapon. Don’t resist or touch the officer, but clarify that you don’t consent to any further searches.
If the police detain you, you may be required to provide your name. Ask if you are under arrest. If so, ask to see a lawyer. If not, ask if you are free to leave.
If you think the police have acted outside their authority, don’t protest or resist on the scene. Write down officers’ names, badge numbers, and patrol car numbers. File a written complaint with the police and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
At the Cochran Firm Texas, we care about you having the voice you deserve. Contact us here, via our online chat or at 800-843-3476 for a free review and initial discussion of your issue.
Nikeyla is an attorney with the Cochran Firm and is licensed to practice in Texas and California. She focuses her practice on civil litigation in the areas of personal injury, employment discrimination, police brutality/excessive force, and business and entertainment matters.