The Right to Protest

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Black Lives Matter.

Planning to participate in a Black Lives Matter protest in Massachusetts? The right to protest—a manifestation of the right to assembly—is protected under the First Amendment, but protesters should know the full breadth of their rights before they take to the streets.

As protesters, your rights are strongest in what are known as “traditional public forums,” such as streets, sidewalks, and parks. So long as you are not blocking access or “interfering with other purposed the property was designed for,” you likely have the right to assemble and speak on public property, including public property in front of government buildings. If you choose to record or photograph the proceedings, you have the legal right to do so, so long as you are lawfully present in a public space and you are photographing or recording anything in public view. This includes federal buildings or the police.

In Boston, a Public Event Application must be filed in order to protest in the streets and obstruct car or pedestrian traffic. If there is no obstruction, no application need be filed. In New Bedford, peaceful protests lasted for days as protesters walked from New Bedford to Dartmouth. From marches to sit-ins to “roll outs,” where protesters made their way through the streets on bicycles and roller blades, this movement has invited support of every shape and kind.

However, police may try to break up protests on the basis of Mass. Gen. Laws c. 272, §53, citing “disorderly conduct” or Mass. Gen. Laws c. 269, §1, “dispersing an unlawful assembly.” Orders to disperse can only be issued as a last resort and 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 a reasonable opportunity to comply, including sufficient time and a clear, unobstructed exit path. In addition, individuals must receive clear and detailed notice of a dispersal order, including how much time they have to disperse, the consequences of failing to disperse, and what clear exit route they can follow, before they may be arrested or charged with any crime.

If you believe the police are acting improperly and your rights are being violated, record everything you can. Police are required to have their badge numbers visible at all times—if possible, make a note of the badge numbers of the officers in question, their patrol car numbers, and precinct, if you can find the information. Take photographs and videos of injuries and of the perpetrators, and if possible, collect witness information and testimony. Official complaints can be filed with the city.

If you or a loved one is being held and you cannot afford to post their bail, the Massachusetts Bail Fund posts bails up to $2,000 in Essex, Suffolk, & Worcester Counties in Massachusetts.

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If you, a family member, or friend have been wrongfully arrested at a protest, or feel that your rights have been violated while protesting, McCormack Law may be able to help. Know your rights, take photos and videos, and call Ashley to discuss your options, 508-974-4810.

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