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With all the protests that have broken out in cities across the U.S. in response to everything that has happened in Ferguson, Missouri, many people are openly debating the legality of various actions by protestors. We think that it is important for you to have the facts, and know your own rights as a protestor. The following are important rights and exemptions to those rights that you will always have as a protestor in Ohio.
You DO always have the right to protest peacefully. Although there are some small limitations to what you can do and say and where you can do them, 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. Police can, however, limit the volume of your speech if you are using amplifiers or the location where you express it. 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 is overtly threatening or incites violence is not protected by the First Amendment. If you are cursing or suggesting any crime (especially harm to police or public servants), you are using “fighting words” and are not engaging in free speech protected by law. If you are threatening violence against the President, Vice-President or major candidates of either office, you are actually committing a serious crime.
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. If you mouth off a police officer, it 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.
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 are required to 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.
You may give out leaflets or other 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.
You do have the right to film a protest. You have the right to photograph anything that is 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 is not maintained on private property. If you are asked to stop filming and refuse, you should be aware that you may be arrested on obstruction charges.
Counter-protests are permitted by law, and both parties are not permitted to physically interrupt the others activities. Police are allowed, however, to create a barrier between opposing groups to maintain order.
Civil disobedience is generally outside the realm of constitutional protections, and you can be arrested for these actions. 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.
You are required to provide police with your name, address, and date of birth on request. Refusing can lead to your arrest.
If you are arrested, stay calm and remember that you do not have to 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 if you are, in fact, being arrested.
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 an often a source of controversy.
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.
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 for a free consultation.