Assembly Requires Us to Come Together
Assembly is the only freedom in the First Amendment that requires multiple people to use it. We can speak, protest, publish and pray alone, but assembly requires us to come together. It can be a spontaneous gathering of people to protest or a planned demonstration. Assembly doesn’t just protect us once we are together, it protects the planning meetings for a protest too.
Awareness of assembly rights is up significantly from past years, with 39% of people able to name it as a First Amendment freedom unprompted and 65% to identify it from a list. Yet most Americans (69%) have never participated in a protest, rally or public march. Just 3% say it is the First Amendment freedom they value most.
The law protects “the right of people peaceably to assemble” but that doesn’t mean it has to be quiet. From silent sit-ins to roaring crowds, assembly protects it all.
Over the course of U.S. history, freedom of assembly has protected individuals espousing myriad viewpoints. Striking workers, civil rights advocates, anti-war demonstrators and the Ku Klux Klan have all taken to the streets and sidewalks in protest or in support of their causes. Sometimes these efforts have galvanized public support or changed public perceptions. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized the importance of this freedom in the 1937 case De Jonge v. State of Oregon, writing that “the right to peaceable assembly is a right cognate to those of free speech and free press and is equally fundamental.”
The freedom of assembly is not limitless. Government officials may not impose restrictions on protests or parades or other lawful assemblies in order to censor a particular viewpoint or because they dislike the content of the message. However, they may impose some limitations on assembly rights by enacting reasonable “time, place and manner” restrictions designed to further regulatory objectives, such as preventing traffic congestion or prohibiting interference with nearby activities.
Those who protest and march may also have to pay a permit fee if it is reasonable, and officials do not withhold the permit because of unpopular views.
What is the difference between the freedom of assembly and the freedom of association?
Freedom of assembly is explicitly guaranteed in the First Amendment and protects the right of people to gather to speak their minds. But protests and other activities under the First Amendment don’t just happen. That’s why, even though it is not specifically mentioned in the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has identified a freedom of association that allows people to create groups and otherwise organize together.
Is there such a thing as “guilt by association”?
Simply attending peaceful meetings of an organization will not make a person guilty, even if other members of that organization commit lawless acts. Guilt can be shared only if the organization and its members have a common plan to break the law.
Want to learn more about freedom of assembly? Check out our educational resources here.