Looking at images of the recent Nazi rally in Charlottesville, I was surprised to see some protesters wearing protective helmets and shields.

Some research on google seems to suggest that protective gear is not that uncommon, and that there are even cases of firearms carried at protests.

Is this legal? Are there any laws in the US regarding how or when to protest? For example in Germany, protests have to be registered beforehand, all passive armament such as shields, helmets, or face coverings are always forbidden, and often there are other conditions such as a maximum size for banners. Do similar rules exist in the US?

Sorry for the poor tagging; I was unable to use the existing protest tag for some reason (guns or civil rights didn't work either)

  • The rule is, don't trash property, throw bombs or assault people as a form of protest. Protective gear could be useful if counter-protesters might batter you; it's also a form of expression (implying that the opposition is dangerous). It is not illegal to wear protective gear: masks may be somewhat illegal, but the First Amendment trumps such ordinances. Most of what you find unusual is because of the First Amendment, or the Second Amendment in the case of firearms. Open carry is a bit of a hodge-podge. Any of this what you're actually interested in? Perhaps you could narrow the question.
    – user6726
    Aug 12 '17 at 19:01
  • @user6726 I mean, activities that are illegal outside of a protest (assault, murder, etc) are obviously illegal during a protest. I was thinking of restrictions that only apply during a protest such as restrictions on active or passive weapons; I'm not sure how to make it more specific. If you say that there are no rules, that would definitely answer my question. I did read about "free speech zones" which may be related, although I'm not sure in which cases they apply. But there may actually be restrictions on the place of protest, but not on what to do during a protest?
    – tim
    Aug 12 '17 at 19:10
  • Tim: don't forget that in addition to freedom of speech, the first amendment also protects "the right of the people peaceably to assemble."
    – phoog
    Aug 12 '17 at 19:27
  • @phoog Sure, but those rights also exists in Germany, but they are not completely unlimited. I think some restrictions also exist in the US (eg yelling fire without cause, libel, etc regarding free speech and eg (maybe?) assembling on private property regarding right to assemble); The constitution obviously guarantees the right to assemble, but it doesn't seem to define how/where/when, and it's surprising to me that there are seemingly very few restrictions.
    – tim
    Aug 12 '17 at 19:51
  • The first amendment is quite explicit: government may not restrict the right of peaceable assembly, which is not the same as saying everyone must guarantee such a right. Also note that the continent can restrict violent assembly. Private property owners can control access to their private property. Germany has apparently come to different conclusions about where to draw the line on conflicting rights; different countries do things differently all the time.
    – phoog
    Aug 12 '17 at 21:20

The First Amendment protects the right of expression in public, though it is not absolute. Criminal acts (rioting or assault) as a form of protest are not protected; trespassing is not protected; obstructing the roads is not protected. The subject matter of the assembly is irrelevant to the extent to which the right to assemble is protected, so it doesn't matter if the event is Nazi, BLM, or protesting the color purple.

The main limit on protests pertains to the use of public space, especially roads, so it is not generally legal for a crowd to assemble and block the roads (or sidewalks, or lobbies of courthouses) without a permit from the relevant (usually municipal) authorities. There may be specific laws prohibiting protests in a certain location (e.g. the floor of the House; on a military base) or temporary policies restricting the venue of a protest (such as a radius around a convention center when a political party is having its convention there). In the latter case, there is typically a "free speech zone", that is, public land set aside for such protests.

The First Amendment only protects peaceable assembly, and restrictions on assemblies are designed to prevent or limit disruptions. Disruptions certainly occur, but with a planned and permitted event, the police are in place to direct traffic and minimize the impact. Another valid concern is that even with advance planning and notice, certain events can turn very violent, in which case the authorities have to do something to mitigate the threat.

It is not at all clear these days whether the authorities tend to abuse their discretion in granting permits. Much as they may hate having a Nazi rally in Chicago, they could not forbid the rally. They may not be required to allow the rally at a specific time and place. There have been problems in the past with authorities holding that "We don't want X in our town", but I think it is generally understood that that is not legal. This does not mean that all authorities are welcoming of all forms of protest, and the limits are stretched and even broken, but what can you do? The answer is, sue them, which may lead to a further sharpening of the law.

One excuse for not giving a permit is that they require advance notice, perhaps of 2 weeks – many political protests take place within a day of some event. In that case, in response to current events, such deadlines are supposed to be suspended.

Any fees imposed by the government have to be actual cost, and cannot include the cost of extra police to protect the protesters; any insurance requirements have to be affordable by the group, and must be waived if insurance can't be obtained.

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