Protests – peaceful and otherwise have broken out across the U.S. in response to the death of George Floyd, and tensions are incredibly high.
At LHA, we want everyone in Columbus and around Franklin County to make sure their voices are heard safely. But you need to be aware of the reality of the situation and your rights as a protester.
If you choose to protest at the Ohio Statehouse or along High Street, keep these rights and exemptions in mind. Also, if you or a loved one are arrested at a Columbus protest, contact an experienced and committed defense attorney right away. You should always fight for equality and justice, but you do not need a criminal conviction complicating the rest of your life.
Call Luftman, Heck and Associates at (614) 500-3836 for a free consultation.
A Protester’s Rights in Ohio
You ALWAYS have the right to protest peacefully. Although there are some limits to what you can do, say, and where you can do either, you have a First Amendment right to protest peacefully without causing violence and destruction.
You have the right to express any opinion, even controversial ones. The First Amendment prohibits restrictions based on the content of speech. However, police can limit the volume of your speech if you are using amplifiers or the location where you express it.
What Can I Say?
Generally, you have the right to free speech in any public forum. This includes streets, sidewalks, parks, and specially designated “free speech” areas. You also can do so from private property, so long as the property owner consents.
Obscene, vulgar language or any speech that threatens or incites violence is not protected by the First Amendment. If you are cursing or suggesting any crime (especially violence or harm to police and public servants), you are not engaging in protected free speech.
Interacting with the Police
What you say to the police matters. You may have the right to yell rude things at police officers, but anything you say can (and will) be held against you. What you say can give them an excuse to arrest you.
Be careful not to cross the line into speech that is not protected by the First Amendment.
Where Can You Legally Protest?
You may need a permit for protests in certain areas, but generally, you are free to act without one. You can operate in Ohio on sidewalks and public streets without a permit so long as you obey traffic and pedestrian signals.
If you will block traffic in any way, you must have a pre-approved permit, so sidewalks are usually a safer choice. However, you are generally not permitted to maliciously obstruct or detain passers-by, and you must allow enough space on the sidewalk for normal pedestrian traffic.
Can I Hand Out Literature?
You may give out leaflets, literature, and engage in debate with passers-by as long as entrances to buildings are not blocked and passers-by are not physically and maliciously detained. Just remember that a permit may be required for a table or another physical structure, such as a platform.
Can I Film & Take Photos?
You have the right to film a protest. You also have the right to photograph anything in plain view when you are lawfully present in any public space. Police officers do not have the right to confiscate any footage or pictures or force you to delete footage. However, this right does not apply to private property. If you are asked to stop filming and refuse, you may be arrested on obstruction charges.
Press coverage of protests is permitted under the First Amendment. The press has a right to report on anything that happens at a protest, including police actions. Infringing on this right is illegal and often a source of controversy.
Counter-Protests & the Opposition
Counter-protests are permitted by law, and both parties are not permitted to physically interrupt the others activities. Police are allowed to create a barrier between opposing groups to maintain order.
Looting and Possible Criminal Charges
Civil disobedience is generally outside the realm of constitutional protections, and you can be arrested. It may be a political action to lay down in a road and block traffic, but it is not generally considered to be covered under the First Amendment. This means that if you plan any action that breaks a law in an act of civil disobedience, you should be prepared to face potential consequences.
Police do have the authority to limit access to places where crimes are underway to protect public safety, but this is very limited. Generally, you should be able to continue to protest peacefully so long as the level of crime is not major. This does mean, however, if violence breaks out in your protest, it can be shut down.
Looting is stealing, which is never legal. In the wake, of a disaster or large protest, destruction of property and looting is seen frequently. Despite the fact that this detracts from what you are protesting, the penalties if caught looting are serious and similar to other theft crimes. However, the circumstances surrounding the incident and the value taken will matter a lot. For instance, if a looter breaks a store window, they may also face burglary or breaking and entering charges, which heightens the possible penalty.
You are required to provide police with your name, address, and date of birth on request. Refusing can lead to your arrest.
What If I’m Arrested at a Protest?
If you are arrested, stay calm and do not answer questions without a lawyer.
Do not resist arrest, as it can lead to worse charges. You have the right to remain silent and wait for representation.
You do not have to consent to a search, but officers are allowed to pat you down for their protection. You will likely be taken to a holding facility, processed, and allowed to contact someone. This is your opportunity to call a lawyer or someone who can contact an attorney for you.
A defense lawyer is your best recourse to move through the process quickly and with little negative impact.
If you feel that your rights to protest are being violated, consider legal representation. We believe that no one should ever have his or her First Amendment rights compromised. If you are not sure about your rights, you can always contact Columbus criminal lawyer Ben Luftman at (614) 500-3836 for a free consultation.
In general, you maintain the right to protest peacefully except under extreme circumstances. Please note that none of the above information should be construed as legal advice, merely a discussion of what potential actions are available if you happen to interact with law enforcement during a protest.