Permits for Protest Marches

Permits for Protest Marches
by Sue Basko

U.S. Constitution First Amendment 
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

When we protest, this what we are doing -- exercising our freedom of speech, peaceably assembling, and petitioning the Government for a redress of grievances.

Please note the word "peaceably."  This blog tells how to peaceably assemble for a protest.

Although we have the right to free speech protest, our local laws are allowed to limit the time, place and manner of such protests, to balance the rights of others and the safety of the community.

This blog aims to take the mystery and fear out of public protest.  

Public Protest Primer

The safest bet in choosing a legal location to hold a public protest is a march on a public sidewalk or a rally (gathering) in a publicly-owned plaza adjacent to a government building.

 Most public protest takes the form of marches.  This is when a group of people gather and walk, often holding signs or chanting refrains, usually in a call-and-response style, or singing.

A rally is a gathering of protesters in one place, usually to listen to speakers, play and listen to music, etc.  Often, a march ends or begins with a rally.  A rally is often held in a public plaza or on a closed-off street.  A rally almost always requires a permit and significant advance planning, since items such as stages must be inspected for structural safety, toilets must be provided, and traffic usually must be rerouted.  A simple rally in a public plaza, without structures, may not require a permit.

We can protest march on the public way without a permit, as long as we let others also use the sidewalk and as long the protest does not interfere with the normal flow of traffic.  This generally means that your protest can take up half the width of the public sidewalk or part of a public plaza.  That brings up two topics: 1) What is the public way?  and 2) What interferes with the normal flow of traffic?

Update, July 2019: Three additional points that were left out of the original version of this post: 

1) If a protest is taking place spontaneously and rapidly in response to something that happened, international law says that protesters have the right to take the streets.  However, keep in mind, the local police may not agree. 

2) There is a big difference in planning a protest for 100 or fewer people versus planning a protest where you expect thousands of people to attend.  If you are planning a protest where you expect a very large gathering of people, then a permit is more likely required.  You should plan your location and logistics in accord with the city services you will require, such as police, EMTs, a reserved plaza and/or streets blocked to traffic, plans for porta-potties, for which a permit is always required if they are placed on public land. Other things that spark the need for a permit include: a stage, a platform, a large tent, hanging large banners, a sound system, handing out food -- basically anything that can collapse, catch fire, or make someone ill.  These require a permit and usually require a public inspection for safety, just as would be done for a carnival or street fair.  In fact, if you are planning a big protest rally, you are best off to think of it as an event akin to a street fair.  A protest rally has more First Amendment protections than a street fair, but the logistics can be quite similar.  

Also, consider your location -- in a small town, a protest that draws 100 people is a big deal.  In a large city, such as Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York, there are multiple good-sized protests happening every day!  Any protest, no matter the size, is meaningful and important.  

3) Think of how those in wheelchairs can access your protest march or rally.  Think about parents with kids in strollers or walking.  Think about the elderly.  Think about those needing bathrooms.  Make these things part of your planning from the outset.  Try to have donated bottled water available for those who did not bring their own.  Try to plan any march so that it loops around and ends where it began -- so that people can easier get to their forms of transportation, whether it is a car, bike, train, bus, etc.  

What is the Public Way?

The public way is the publicly-owned sidewalk.  In some cities and towns, there are also publicly-owned plazas, and those are usually the public way.

What is Not the Public Way?

The public way does not include sidewalk owned by a private owner, such as a business or office or store.  Shopping malls are not the public way.  (Note: There are some free speech  rights in shopping malls in California and New Jersey.  These come not from the U.S. Constitution, but from the State Constitutions as interpreted by the State Courts.  Therefore, these are not "First Amendment" rights , because they do not arise out of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Please consult a lawyer and read:  Time, Place, and Manner Restrictions on Peaceable Assembly.  In reality today in California, I think these rights are essentially theoretical, because California shopping malls today take steps to make their malls places to which customers are invited, but the general public is not.  Also, malls in California have instituted their own permitting processes and time, place, and manner restrictions.  Also, these free speech rights are probably not for "big box" stores, but for traditional malls where there is space that is analogous to the public way.)

Privately-owned plazas are not the public way.  Even if the public is generally invited to a space, such as a plaza, if it is privately owned, your First Amendment free speech rights do not extend there. (Please see the note above about the California shopping mall exception, which arises from the California Constitution, not the First Amendment.)   This can differ in a POP --  a privately-owned public space, which is an area for the public created in exchange for getting higher density in a zoning deal.  If you want to protest in a POP, talk with a lawyer.   Most shopping malls and plazas do not allow signs to be carried onto the property, do not allow anyone to pass out flyers, and do not allow protests.   They can kick you out for doing such things, or they can have you arrested if you refuse to leave or if you return.  (Again, see the California exception to this.)  

Are There Limits on Protesting on Public Property?

Yes, generally you cannot protest outside of a person's house. (This can be different for a public official.  Keep in mind that if the house is located in a residential area, there can be strict limits on noise, parking, etc. ) Illinois Criminal Code 720ILCS 5/ Art.21.1) specifically prohibits "picketing" outside anyone's residence, other than outside your own.  Other states may have similar laws.   There may also be limits on protesting outside of someone's place of business; harassment is not a protected form of speech, so what you are protesting and why you have chosen the location do matter.  Also, many locations limit or prohibit protesting outside a medical facility.   Many publicly-owned schools, especially grammar and high schools, do not allow protesters on the property.  There may be limits in parks; most cities require a permit to hold a protest in a park if the group has more than a given number of participants.  Common numbers are 25 or 50.  Check the municipal law.  Most parks contain protest activity to certain locations.  Most parks also limit or prohibit the use of sound amplifying devices, such as amplifiers or megaphones. You need to check the local laws and the rules regulating a place.  If you plan to hold a protest in such a place, you would be wise to consult with a lawyer first.

What Interferes with Traffic? 

We have the right to march in protest, and we usually do not need a permit to do so, unless we will interfere with the normal flow of traffic.  What does this mean?  Usually it means one of four things:

1) If you actually walk or stand in the street, you are interfering with traffic.  If your protest requires street closure, you need a permit.  

Think about this: If streets must be closed, traffic must be rerouted.  Bus routes and stops will have to be rerouted.  Signs will have to be posted in advance so bus riders know what to expect.  Driveways may need to be closed off.  Bicyclists will need to find different routes.  Businesses will be inconvenienced or lose business.  Schools may have students whose parents cannot reach them to pick them up.  If there are medical facilities on the proposed route, patients can be inconvenienced or endangered by not having access to the clinic or hospital.  If there is a fire station, you may be blocking its driveway.   Parking will have to be banned from the streets for that day.   Public works, such as working on cable, sewers, trees, or trash pick-up, will not be able to take place on those streets during your in-street protest.  ALL this needs to be planned and coordinated well in advance.  Your route will have to chosen very carefully.  In most locations, there is a "usual route" that is used for protests.  It is based on the factors just mentioned.

As you can see, an enormous amount of planning goes into closing off streets for a protest. 

2) If you will have a lot of people marching on the sidewalk, and if crossing the streets at the crosswalks is going to cause traffic flow to slow or halt, you may or may not need a permit.  If everyone in your march faithfully stops at each crosswalk and only walks when it is their turn, then you are not interfering with the flow of traffic.  However, if you are planning for a big group, it is wise to seek a permit.  You may also want to assign your own crossing guards.  Sometimes the local police will act as crossing guards.

3) If your group requires lots of parking spots and many cars will be circling around while the drivers look for spots, this might be considered interfering with the flow of traffic, if this is unusual for that location.  Check the laws of the local municipalities on whether you need a permit.

4) If the protesters are waving at cars or engaging in acts that will cause a stop-and-gawk response from car drivers, this can be considered interfering with traffic.  This, of course, depends on what is planned and how unusual it is for that area.  For example, if you are planning some sort of die-in or costumes or any other activity that may alarm viewers, then traffic should probably be diverted so there are no accidents.  Or the protest may need to be moved to a location without traffic.   Even though you do not plan to be in the street, if you are planning  something that could distract drivers, you should get a permit, because the nature of what you are doing is likely to interfere with traffic flow.

The issue came up of whether it is allowable to stand on a highway overpass to try to get the attention of drivers.  Driver distraction is the #1 cause of highway deaths.  This activity, of course, interferes with traffic -- that is the purpose of it.  A permit would be needed and it is highly unlikely one would ever be granted since that would be granting a permit to endanger lives.  We have the right to protest; we do not have the right to endanger lives.  Also, keep in mind that even if you have a legal right to protest, if the way you are protesting causes anyone to be injured, you can be sued for their injuries.

What Is a Protest Permit All About?

Local laws regulate the time, place and manner of protests.   This includes reserving a space for your group; helping you plan your route so it does not interfere with other events and uses; closing streets if needed; letting you know how much noise you can make at that time and location; providing police escorts if needed, especially to block traffic;  protecting your group and separating you from any opposing groups that plan to come and counter-protest; making sure there are adequate toilets and clean-up planned; arranging for City clean-up crews; and inspecting the safety of any stages or platforms or large props or other potentially dangerous items being used. 

The whole object of a protest permit is to make your protest successful and safe.

How to Get a Permit to Hold a Protest

Permits are issued by municipalities -- that is, cities and towns and suburbs.  You should contact them well in advance.  If you have trouble getting a permit or feel you are being denied one for unfair reasons, you should talk with a lawyer.  It is generally illegal for a municipality to charge an application fee for a permit for a First Amendment protest (except some charge fees for an application for a big protest that is more like a "parade."  However, a municipality may charge you for clean-up or repairs or other costs, if they would charge similarly for other groups and events.

Some cities charge an application fee for permits for a big protest that will close streets.  Some cities require those holding a large protest to have insurance coverage for the event. 

Please note that some experts in freedom of assembly say it is illegal for a municipality or other government entity to charge any fees for a large protest -- such as an application fee, insurance, clean-up, or being billed for police services, etc.  If you are planning a large protest, check into the practices in your area and consult with a local lawyer familiar with protest laws.

A municipality is allowed to deny you a permit to hold a big protest event if you or your group have a bad track record or if it seems  like you do not have the ability to successfully run your event.  Such things can be a past history of violating laws during your protests, past history of property damage, past history of blocking traffic,  past history of leaving flyers or stickers and trash, and other such things.  They will also look at how realistic your plans seem.  For example, if you want to block a mile of streets, and it sounds as if you may only have 100 people, they are not going to let you do that.  You can walk on the sidewalks for that.  Are your plans legal, feasible, safe, and workable?   Are you, your organization, and your people responsible?

Also, usually the office that handles the permits will want to talk in person to the main people of the group seeking the permit.  They will want to see if you seem logical, coherent, and well-organized.   Their concern will be whether it seems likely that you can run your protest in a safe and legal manner, without danger to the safety of people or damage to property. 

Steps to Getting a Permit for a Protest 

Check with the municipality where you plan to hold the protest.  Phone them and talk.  Most will want you to fill out a detailed application.  Many will want to meet with you in person.  If you are denied a permit, there is an appeals process.  Ask what it is and do it.   If you feel you are denied wrongly and need help, contact a local lawyer and ask for their help.

Protest Permits in Los Angeles

Los Angeles asks that permits be applied for 40 days in advance.  Any permits applied for less than 5 days in advance are routinely denied.  In Los Angeles, the same police office handles First Amendment permits and Film Location permits.  Other Special Events permits are handled by a different permits office.  Protest marches and film shoots both close off streets, interfere with traffic, make noise -- and cannot interfere with each other.

To get a protest permit in Los Angeles, you should fill out this
  L.A. PERMIT APPLICATION and bring it to:

Los Angeles Police Department
Special Events Permit Unit
1149 South Broadway, 5th Floor, Stop 932
Los Angeles, CA 90015
Phone: (213) 847-1640
Fax: (213) 847-1797 

Getting a Permit in Other Municipalities 
The first step in planning for a protest is to read the local municipal code of the place where you plan to hold the protest.  Many of these are online. Most likely, you will find it online linked to the official website of the city, town, or suburb.  If you cannot find that, google on the name of the town, the state, and the words "municipal code."   

You will want to read the pertinent parts of the municipal code.   For starters, look through the Code's Table of Contents for such sections as:  Permits, Public Assemblies, First Amendment, Protests and Parades, Streets and Public Ways, Noise, Sound, Amplifiers, Camping (if you plan an occupation),  Special Events, and other such possible topic headings.

Here is a link to municipal codes of many California cities: 

The second step is to call the offices of the municipality and say you want to get a permit.  They will tell you how to go about this.  If you are given a run-around, persist.  If you cannot make headway, persist some more or talk with a lawyer.

Sum Up on How to Get a Protest Permit

1. Determine if you need a permit.  If you are staying on the sidewalk or on a public plaza and you don't have a huge crowd, you probably do not need a permit.  If you will interfere with the normal flow of traffic, you will need a permit.  If you plan to hold a large event in a park or plaza, you most likely need a permit.

2. Find the municipal code online and read the pertinent parts.  Search on applicable words and scan the entire Table of Contents.

3. If an application is required, find it online or go in person and get it and study it.  Figure out your answers.   

4.  Call the municipality and say you want a permit.  Ask about the process.

5. Fill out the application, go to the meeting with the officials in charge of permits, and follow through on what they tell you.

6. If you are denied a permit, find out how to appeal and decide if you want to do that.

7. Try to find a local lawyer to assist you, if needed.