NY Protesters’ Rights During Covid-19
New Yorkers have the constitutional right to engage in peaceful protest activity on public sidewalks and streets, and in public parks. This includes the right to:
- Distribute flyers or leaflets;
- Hold press conferences, demonstrations, and rallies; and
- March on public sidewalks and in public streets.
Know your rights before heading out into the streets. Protest is vital to social justice. However, the rules for protest are different while New York is in a state of emergency under COVID-19.
What restrictions can the government impose on my First Amendment rights?
The First Amendment protects your right to assemble and express your views through protest. However, police and other government officials are allowed to place certain narrow restrictions on the exercise of speech rights. In certain instances, permits are required to ensure that demonstrations remain orderly and do not negatively impact the surrounding area or become dangerous.
When I am required to wear a face covering?
You are required to wear a face mask:
- In public places where you are not able to maintain six feet of distance from others; and
- While using public transportation or hired vehicles.
The following people do not need to wear a mask:
- Children two years old or younger; and
- People unable to medically tolerate a face covering.
What am I legally allowed to do during a protest?
You are allowed to do the following during a protest:
- Gather in groups of up to 10 people while maintaining a distance of 6 feet from others;
- Hold signs or offer flyers, pamphlets, and other expressive materials to others; and
- Film protest and police activity, but maintain enough distance so as not to interfere with police activity.
Where are my rights the strongest?
Your rights are the strongest in “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 the property’s other purposes.
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 you and the other 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.
What happens when the police issue an order to disperse?
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 you with sufficient time to comply and a clear, unobstructed exit path.
Before you can be arrested or charged with any crime, you must be given clear and detailed notice of a dispersal order, including how much time you have to disperse, the consequences of failing to disperse, and what clear exit route you can follow.
What should I do if my rights have been violated?
If you believe your rights have been violated:
- Write down everything you can remember, including the officers’ badge and patrol car numbers and the agency for which they work;
- Obtain contact information for all witnesses;
- Take photographs of any injuries; and
- File a written complaint with the agency’s internal affairs division or civilian complaint board.
If you arrested for peacefully protesting in Western New York, contact Friedman & Ranzenhofer, PC at (716) 542-5444 or WNY-Lawyers.com for free representation.