The Ways You Can Break the Law by Protesting

The First Amendment isn’t all-encompassing when assembling in Georgia

By S.M. Oliva

Everyone learned in school that the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of all Americans to protest. Actually, what the First Amendment protects is the “right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” But while the Constitution forbids state and local governments from censoring a protest based on the content of its message, various statutes and court decisions do permit the “reasonable” regulation of the “time, place and manner” of assemblies to ensure the public's safety.

Local Event Permitting Laws

For example, if you want to organize a protest in public areas within the city of Atlanta, you may need to get an event permit from local officials first. Atlanta requires such permits for marches, rallies, and parades that meet any two of the following three criteria:

  • The event is expected to involve 75 or more people;
  • The event will travel for more than two blocks on city streets; and/or
  • The “moving portion” of the event is expected to last more than one hour.

If you organize or participate in a protest without following local permitting rules, it may be declared an “unlawful assembly” by the ranking law enforcement officer at the scene. The officer may then order the crowd to disperse. If you subsequently fail to “withdraw,” you can be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor offense under Georgia law. And if the protest turns into a “riot” or “mob,” you can be charged with a felony, which carries a potential prison term of five years.

Georgia's Anti-Mask Act

Even where a protest itself is lawful, individual protesters may still run afoul of “time, place and manner” restrictions imposed by local law. One of the more notable restrictions in Georgia is the Anti-Mask Act, which makes it a misdemeanor to wear a “mask, hood, or device by which any portion of the face is so hidden, concealed, or covered as to conceal the identity of the wearer” while on a public road or other public property.

Although the Georgia legislature adopted the Anti-Mask Act in the 1950s to address the specific problem of hooded Ku Klux Klan demonstrators, it has been applied to protesters regardless of their racial and political views. In fact, in April 2018, Georgia police invoked the Anti-Mask Act to arrest several individuals who were counter-protesting against neo-Nazi and other racist demonstrators. Once again, the law does not—and cannot—discriminate based on the political views of the speaker.

Indeed, one issue that frequently arises with protests is the presence of counter-demonstrators who oppose the protesters' message. Of course, the First Amendment protects everyone's right to assemble equally. But keep in mind that no matter how offensive you might view a protester's view, you do not have a legal right to physically disrupt someone else's protest. That said, you are free to organize and participate in a counter-demonstration consistent with local time, place and manner restrictions. If you believe your rights have been violated, reach out to a reputable civil rights attorney.

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