The First Amendment protects your right to assemble and express your views through protest. However, protesting is not without risk, especially during a pandemic. Make sure you’re prepared by brushing up on your rights before heading out into the streets. This information is not intended as legal advice. 

North Carolina National Lawyers' Guild Legal Hotline: 919-408-7569
 

 

1. What are my First Amendment rights to protest?

Q.What are my First Amendment rights to protest?
A.
  • Your rights are strongest in what are known as “traditional public forums,” such as streets, sidewalks, and parks. You also likely have the right to speak out on other public property, like plazas in front of government buildings, as long as you are not blocking access to the government building or interfering with other purposes the property was designed for.
  • Private property owners can set rules for speech on their property. The government may not restrict your speech if it is taking place on your own property or with the consent of the property owner.
  • Counter protesters also have free speech rights. 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 have the right to photograph anything in plain view, including federal buildings and the police. On private property, the owner may set rules related to photography or video.
  • You don’t need a permit to march in the streets or on sidewalks, as long as marchers don’t obstruct car or pedestrian traffic. If you don’t have a permit, police officers can ask you to move to the side of a street or sidewalk to let others pass or for safety reasons.

2. What if I can’t attend a protest – how else can I make my voice heard?

Q.What if I can’t attend a protest – how else can I make my voice heard?
A.

SBOE has a fact sheet with frequently asked questions and additional information about absentee voting or voting by mail in North Carolina.

3. If I’m organizing a protest around the RNC, do I need a permit?

Q.If I’m organizing a protest around the RNC, do I need a permit?
A.

You do not generally need a permit to protest around the RNC, with the exception of areas covered by an Extraordinary Events Ordinance (EEO) that expands the powers of police to limit constitutionally protected activities and search the bags of anyone traveling in a section of the city. 
 

4. Should we expect a federal law enforcement presence?

Q.Should we expect a federal law enforcement presence?
A.

Yes, given the 2012 DNC and recent militarized deployment of federal agents in Oregon and large cities including Chicago.  In addition to the considerations outlined here, it is important to practice good digital security during protests. 

5. What about limits on mass gatherings during the pandemic?

Q.What about limits on mass gatherings during the pandemic?
A.
  • People retain their fundamental rights to travel and protest, even during a pandemic. During this extraordinary time, public officials may have greater leeway to set scientifically-based limits on protest activities.  
  • Under the State of North Carolina’s Safer at Home Phase 2 order, gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited in outdoor spaces. 
  • However, officials cannot enforce such orders differently based on the content of people’s speech or because they are protesting during the RNC.
  • Enforcement of these orders must be non-violent, equitable, and not target people based on the color of their skin, suspected immigration status, the content of their speech, or their political point-of-view.
  • For the protection of public health, law enforcement should exercise restraint in the enforcement of mass gathering limits and avoid imposing fines, fees or custodial arrests unless doing so is the absolute last resort. 
  • The ACLU of North Carolina will be closely monitoring any civil liberties issues that come up during the RNC, especially those that infringe on the rights of those already marginalized and in Black and Brown communities.  

6. Is it safe to protest during COVID-19?

Q.Is it safe to protest during COVID-19?
A.
  • The First Amendment protects your right to protest, but it is never without risk – especially for people of color. 
  • COVID-19 is disproportionately ravaging communities of color, seniors, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable community members. 
  • In addition, North Carolinians who work low wage, often essential jobs that cannot be performed at home, such as health care and service industry jobs, will need to be out in the community to serve the public and support their own families. 
  • We urge protestors to be mindful of the well-being of their fellow community members as they exercise their First Amendment rights. Wherever possible, protestors should modify their tactics to comport with public health directives and CDC recommendations, including wearing masks and practicing social distancing. 

Make sure to follow CDC guidelines, including wearing a mask and staying 6 feet away from others when possible.

7. What happens if the police issues an order to disperse the protest?

Q.What happens if the police issues an order to disperse the protest?
A.
  • Shutting down a protest through a dispersal order must be law enforcement’s last resort. Police may not break up a gathering unless there is a clear and present danger of riot, disorder, interference with traffic, or other immediate threat to public safety.
  • If officers issue a dispersal order, they must provide a reasonable opportunity to comply, including sufficient time and a clear, unobstructed exit path.
  • Individuals must receive clear and detailed notice of a dispersal order, including how much time they have to disperse, the consequences of failing to disperse, and what clear exit route they can follow, before they may be arrested or charged with any crime.

8. What if I’m stopped by the police at a protest?

Q.What if I’m stopped by the police at a protest?
A.
  • You have the right to wear a mask and gloves while being detained/interrogated by police in order to ensure your personal protection.
  • If law enforcement stops you on the street, you can refuse to answer questions and ask if you are free to go. 
  • While law enforcement may be legally permitted to pat down the outside of your clothing to determine if you have weapons and may search you while arresting you, you may refuse to consent to any further searches. They might search you anyway, but do not consent. 
  • For your safety, do not resist even an illegal search. Doing so will increase the likelihood that police will act violently against you. Additionally, the police may charge you with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, or worse.
  • If detained, questioned, or arrested by the police, all people - no matter what their citizenship status - may invoke the right to remain silent. 
  • If arrested, you may invoke your right to remain silent and request to speak to a lawyer before speaking to law enforcement.
  • If you are not a citizen, you should be careful not to divulge to law enforcement where you were born. Be wary of showing ID that may indicate your place of birth or suggest you are not a citizen.
  • You have the right to photograph and video record protests and police conduct during protests.

9. If you believe your rights were violated

Q.If you believe your rights were violated
A.
  • Write down everything you remember, including officers’ badges and patrol car numbers, which agency the officers were from, and any other details. Get contact information for witnesses.
  • If you’re injured, seek medical attention immediately and take photographs of your injuries.
  • File a written complaint with the agency’s internal affairs division or civilian complaint board. In most cases, you can file a complaint anonymously if you wish.
  • Contact the North Carolina National Lawyers Guild Legal Hotline at 919-408-7569.

10. Download the Mobile Justice App

Q.Download the Mobile Justice App
A.

You have the right to film the police. Our Mobile Justice NC smartphone app was created to empower individuals to hold North Carolina law enforcement agencies accountable for their actions.

Download the app on your Android or iOS for free. Disponible en español.

Download on the App Store
Android App on Google Play

Our Mobile Justice NC app allows you to record audio and video which is then automatically sent to the ACLU of North Carolina.

The app has four main features:

  • Record- allows you to capture interactions with police and law enforcement in audio and video files that are automatically emailed to the ACLU of North Carolina.
  • Witness- sends an alert to people with the app who are near you, giving them the option to go to your location in order to witness and document the interaction with law enforcement. 
  • Report- gives you the option to provide a detailed account of interactions with police in a written incident report, which will be sent directly to the ACLU of North Carolina.
  • Know Your Rights- provides an overview of what rights protect North Carolinians when they are stopped by law enforcement officers.

Police officers put their lives on the line to protect and serve the public. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable when they abuse their authority. Transparency is important for building trust among the people they have sworn to protect.

Help spread the word and make sure your friends and family know their rights and download the Mobile Justice NC app on their smartphone.