Making your voice heard (Unit 2)

UNDERSTANDING PROTESTS AND DEMONSTRATIONS

A protest (also called a demonstration, remonstration or remonstrance) is a public expression of objection, disapproval or dissent towards an idea or course of action, typically a political one. Protests can take many different forms, from individual statements to mass demonstrations. In this course, we are going to treat protests/demonstrations from a foundational approach, i.e. we would be trying to understand freedom of expression/free speech better.

 

Is all speech protected?

In “sane” democracies around the World, free speech implies that you can protest against the government by saying nearly anything you feel like. In the United States for instance, the First Amendment protects your right to express your opinion, even if it’s unpopular. You may criticize the President, Congress, or the chief of police without fear of retaliation. However, the right to free speech does not cover libel, slander, obscenity, “true threats,” or speech that incites imminent violence or law-breaking. In other words, it is advisable to sometimes consider the legal implications of what you say in protests against the government, in order to protect yourself from harsh legal consequences.

What if others react violently to what I say?

You shouldn’t be held responsible for the way that counter-demonstrators or your own supporters react, as long as your words do not “directly incite violence” or law-breaking. It is the responsibility of the police to control the crowd. However, a less tolerant government might decide to arrest you if people react violently to what you say. You must thus ensure that your words do not directly incite lawless action in order to be on the safer side of the law.

Do I need a permit for my protests/demonstrations?

Whether you are marching on the city square, holding a candlelight vigil, or rallying outside the statehouse or a private business, you should endeavour to check local regulations before you put on your marching shoes and pull out the megaphone because regulations vary across borders.

In sane democracies, the government do not prohibit marches or demonstrations on public streets or public parks but it can often require a permit to regulate competing uses of the area and ensure adequate security. In Nigeria, organizing a protest or mass rally usually requires permit from the police (although this does not come with a constitutional backing) to ensure that protests are not hijacked by unscrupulous elements. The appropriate permit for a protest in Nigeria (backed constitutionally) is to be forwarded to the governor, in whose State the protest/demonstration would hold. Many legal practitioners and advocates argue that it is retrogressive for people to require a pass to hold rallies in a democracy, as it contradicts the fundamental right of citizens to assemble freely and protest without any inhibition whatsoever. The position of the law as regards a permit for protests might not be uniform across borders, hence it is highly advisable that you try to obtain one to prevent avoidable legal fallouts.

Can I make a lot of noise during my protests?

The answer varies from country to country and State to State, but one general principle applies: You may use amplification devices as long as your intent is to communicate your message, not to disturb the peace. The government may require permits for music, drums and loudspeakers, but ordinances should be narrowly tailored so that they prevent excessive noise without interfering with your free-speech rights.

What’s the best location for my free-speech activity?

In the United States, the First Amendment gives you the right to decide where best to express yourself, but your right to exercise your free-speech rights may hinge upon exactly where you choose to exercise those rights. In many democracies around the World, you can legally carry out your protests/demonstrations at traditional and designated public places, but not in non-public places. Traditional/designated public places include sidewalks, streets, public parks, public auditoriums, city halls, public squares and the front of public buildings. Non-public places include military faculties, airport terminals, the entrance to a post office and secret service facilities.

Can I protest on private property?

As a rule, constitutions in democracies around the World do not give you the right to engage in protests/demonstrations on private property unless you own or lease the property, or the owner has given you permission to use the property for free-speech activities. On the contrary, you may canvass or carry out a door-to-door campaign in residential areas, unless the homeowner has put up a “no solicitors” sign on their property, or refuses to grant you audience.

(This unit is produced mainly from publications of the American civil liberties union (with permission).

 

Please download and read through the content of the attached PDF(s)

(Defending freedom of expression and information, Source- Article19.org)

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