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Freedom of Assembly

Fundamental Rights

Every day, Americans exercise the freedoms of association and assembly. Both freedoms protect expressive choices. They let individuals decide what to think and say, with whom to agree or disagree and when and how to do so. The freedom of association safeguards membership in organizations, regardless of whether individuals, groups, or even the government approve. The freedom of assembly allows people to gather in public to express their beliefs, happily or in the angriest protest. Fundamental to a free society, these rights are not always easily enjoyed. Majorities can find their ideologies threatened, and government officials can see some kinds of association and assembly as dangerous. The exercise of these freedoms has repeatedly provoked controversies that test the nation's commitment to constitutional liberties.

The right of assembly is as old as the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. Article I of the Bill of Rights guarantees "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." The framers of the Constitution protected these civil liberties because British authorities had repressed them during the colonial period. Particularly infuriating had been the refusal of the British king to answer the colonists' petitions, despite this right having been guaranteed in the English Bill of Rights of 1689. Thus, in the drafting of the First Amendment, the protections against government interference in speech and religion were joined to that of assembly and petition. In every era since, these rights have played a major role in shaping important historical events, from the gathering of two million anti-slavery petitions by abolitionists in the late 1830s, to the nineteenth and twentieth century marches of suffragettes on behalf of women's voting rights, to the demonstrations of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and the anti-war protests of the same period.

Like speech rights, the right of assembly is not absolute. It is even somewhat weaker. The Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment does not give as much protection to assembly as it does to "pure speech," a distinction observed in cases such as Cox v. Louisiana (1965). Lawmakers thus have regulated assembly in numerous ways, from requiring the issuance of permits to declaring when, where and for how long public demonstrations may occur. The Court has often recognized the importance of these reasonable regulations. In Cox v. New Hampshire (1941), it upheld a state law whose permit requirement for parades was intended to keep sidewalks and streets open for traffic. Government limits on assembling in particular public sites have been upheld, too, as witnessed in the decision Adderley v. Florida (1966), which allowed a state to ban demonstrations on jail premises. By the 1980s, courts required that such regulations must be narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest, not control the content of the proposed assembly, and leave open alternative means for public expression.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesFreedom of Assembly - Fundamental Rights, Political Expression, Freedom Of Association, Further Readings