Freedom of Assembly

The term “freedom of assembly” refers to the right of the people to peacefully organize without having to fear government interference. For example, freedom of assembly refers to an individual’s right to join a protest without having to fear the government shutting the protest down.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects individuals who wish to assemble in order to protest the actions of their government, so long as they do so in a peaceful manner. To explore this concept, consider the following freedom of assembly definition.

Definition of Freedom of Assembly

Noun

  1. The right to hold a public meeting without the government interfering.

Origin

1275–1325         Middle English (assemble)

What is Freedom of Assembly Meaning?

Freedom of assembly is the constitutionally protected right to organize. For example, freedom of assembly means that American citizens are within their right, per the Constitution, to assemble for the purpose of peacefully protesting the actions of their government.

If, however, their meeting turns violent, then law enforcement may step in to help get things back under control. Freedom of assembly protects people who want to defend or promote their ideas without having to fear repercussions for expressing themselves.

Examples of Freedom of Assembly

Freedom of assembly examples may sound like they are all rooted in protest, but this is not actually true. The freedom to assemble refers to the American people’s right to get together for any purpose.

Hosting a party, having a board game night with the neighbors, or even going to church are all freedom of assembly examples. The difference, however, is that freedom of assembly protects those whom the government believes may “cause trouble” when they get together.

Consider one of the most recent freedom of assembly examples: the women’s march in January of 2017. Here, women from all across the globe participated in a march to protest the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

The protest was a response to comments Trump had made while on the campaign trail that many believed were anti-woman, or just offensive in general. The march became the longest single-day protest in American history, with women assembling to advocate for human rights, including reproductive rights, worker’s rights, and racial equality.

Right to Peaceful Protest

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right to peaceful protest. However, while the Constitution prevents the government from outright interfering in the right to peaceful protest, officials can restrict the time, place, and manner of the protest, provided they do so within the confines of the Constitution.

For instance, people can practice their right to peaceful protest so long as they first obtain a permit for the assembly. The government may also impose restrictions on protests that occur near major events that are open to the public.

First Amendment

The First Amendment to the Constitution protects several of the American people’s rights, including the right to free speech, the right to freely practice one’s religion and, of course, the freedom of assembly. In recent years, as politics have evolved to allow people to express themselves more democratically, the freedom to protest under the First Amendment has combined, in a way, with freedom of speech.

Interestingly, while the framers of the Constitution were drafting the Bill of Rights, they were more opposed to protecting citizens’ freedom of assembly over their freedom of petition. They believed that if they gave people protection under the First Amendment to assemble, the people could then drastically change the American government’s very framework.

The right to assemble and petition, however, only gives people the right to express themselves – it does not guarantee they will get a response from the government they are petitioning.

Restrictions on Freedom of Assembly

Despite the fact that the First Amendment protects the people’s right to assemble, governments often violate that right as a way to suppress dissent and criticism of the government. For instance, restrictions on freedom of assembly include some governments censoring or straight-up blocking content on social media in an attempt to suppress protests.

And it is not always the federal government placing restrictions on freedom of assembly in some countries, but certain states as well. Some states exercise restrictions on freedom of assembly that one could consider downright abusive, like misusing measures put in place to deter terrorists or to protect national security. In other words, certain states make protestors seem more dangerous than they are in order to “convince” people not to join the protest and to continue supporting their government.

Freedom of Assembly Example Involving Jehovah’s Witnesses

The matter of Cox v. New Hampshire is an example of freedom of assembly coming before the court system. Here, a large group of Jehovah’s Witnesses conducted an informational march in July of 1939 in Manchester, New Hampshire. They divided into groups, carried signs with both political and religious messages written on them, and distributed pamphlets to passersby, inviting them to attend a talk.

While the group had planned their march in advance, they did not seek a permit for the march. As a result, police arrested 68 of the marchers, who ultimately received convictions of violating their state’s statute requiring a permit to accompany any parade or procession.

Appeal

Five of the 68 members appealed their convictions, arguing that the statute violated their First Amendment rights to, among other things, assemble peaceably. The state appellate court held a new trial and found the defendants guilty. The defendants brought their case to the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, however this Court too upheld their conviction. They decided to appeal their decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Supreme Court

In what was perhaps a surprising turn, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the decisions of the lower courts. Chief Justice Hughes, writing for the majority, found that New Hampshire’s statute did not violate the appellants’ rights under the First Amendment.

The reason for this was because the state had an interest in regulating the usage of its own streets to protect the safety of its citizens. Chief Justice Hughes noted that the statute did not hinder anyone’s religious or political views, only that it granted or denied permits on how and when to properly use its streets.

Said the Court, in their own words:

Civil liberties, as guaranteed by the Constitution, imply the existence of an organized society maintaining public order without which liberty itself would be lost in the excesses of unrestrained abuses. The authority of a municipality to impose regulations in order to assure the safety and convenience of the people in the use of public highways has never been regarded as inconsistent with civil liberties, but, rather, as one of the means of safeguarding the good order upon which they ultimately depend.

The control of travel on the streets of cities is the most familiar illustration of this recognition of social need. Where a restriction of the use of highways in that relation is designed to promote the public convenience in the interest of all, it cannot be disregarded by the attempted exercise of some civil right which, in other circumstances, would be entitled to protection.

One would not be justified in ignoring the familiar red traffic light because he thought it his religious duty to disobey the municipal command, or sought by that means to direct public attention to an announcement of his opinions.

As regulation of the use of the streets for parades and processions is a traditional exercise of control by local government, the question in a particular case is whether that control is exerted so as not to deny or unwarrantedly abridge the right of assembly and the opportunities for the communication of thought and the discussion of public questions immemorially associated with resort to public places.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to rule in a civil matter.

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