Two of the fundamental rights granted by the United States Constitution are the right of free speech, and the right of public assembly. These two rights allow United States citizens to freely speak their mind on a broad range of subjects, and they also allow citizens to peacefully assemble, without prior governmental permission, so long as such assembly is done properly and appropriately. These rights of free speech and freedom of assembly are so much a part of our culture that we often don’t even think about them as basic rights unless we feel they are being threatened. For example, nobody thinks twice about going to a music concert at a large concert hall – and nobody thinks twice about showing up for a performance of Shakespeare in the park. Everybody just goes without ever thinking about getting a special governmental permit allowing a large number of people to assemble for such a performance.
But this wasn’t always the case. Some governments throughout history have been known to curb, limit, or outright ban informal, unauthorized meetings of persons. This may have been done in an effort to limit the ability of persons to organize themselves in some kind activity that the government didn’t support. It’s easy to find examples of this. One of the most readily examples of this is found in the Bible, where an informal gathering of people was dispersed because no governmental permission had been previously obtained for the gathering. See Acts 19:21-41.
The right of free speech and the right to peaceably assemble are federal rights, granted by the Bill of Rights in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment specifically provides that “Congress . . . shall pass no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” This means that the Bill of Rights prevents the Federal government from improperly limiting or infringing on those rights. The First Amendment doesn’t say anything about whether or not the several States have the ability to pass laws that infringe on those rights. But the 14th amendment to the Constitution has been interpreted to extend these rights to actions by state governments, so that not only the United States Congress but also state and local governments are prohibited from improperly infringing on those rights.
Recognizing that the right to peaceably assemble is a fundamental constitutional right, it would be easy to think that there should never be any kind of problems with this right. But there are many forms of government in the United States. There is one federal government, fifty state governments, and many, many city and county governments. All of them pass laws and ordinances to regulate the activities of their citizens and residents. So it may come as no surprise that one of these many governments may occasionally run afoul of one or more of these individual constitutional rights.
For an interesting case involving the right to assemble on public real estate, see the articles over the next week two weeks.
Though individuals have first amendment rights to peaceably assemble, the government can often regulate and control the time, place, and manner of such assembly. First amendment rights of free speech and free assembly are governed by extensive case law interpreting and defining those rights. Proper application and understanding of these rights involves complex legal considerations. Persons with First Amendment claims, issues or questions should consult competent legal counsel.