Parliament must amplify law on demonstrations and protests

On October 1, it was reported how NASA supporters held demos in New York City. The demonstrations were organised by Amnesty International. The video showed about 20 people some holding placards but all standing at a designated spot at the 47th and 1st Avenue between 11.30am and 1.30pm. The organisers had to buy a hefty insurance policy for the permit. This is the main reason I have penned this article.

Just like in other areas, we have borrowed heavily from the US on matters that touch on democracy and human rights. But when it got to demonstrations, protests and picketing we appear to have given the limitations to the Second Amendment a wide berth. We are suffering from that oversight and will continue to suffer until we wake up to the fact that enjoyment of rights has responsibility tagged on. Already, business entities in all our cities and towns are appealing for designated places for demonstrations, protests and picketing.

Article 37 of our Constitution says ‘Every person has the right, peaceably and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket, and to present petitions to public authorities.’ But no one takes the words ‘peaceably and unarmed’ seriously. The following is what happens in most US cities.

Take the case of City Hall. US citizens have the right to hold a rally, a press conference or a demonstration on the steps of the City Hall or outside it. You need to schedule such an event with the Police Department officials. The group should be limited to 300 people and only a portion of the steps may be used. All attendees must go through a metal detector. 

You may hold signs, but do not affix them to wooden sticks or metal poles or affix them to public property, such as light posts. The same applies to a similar event on a public street or sidewalk.

Parks and public squares are traditional public forums for First Amendment activity. However, the Constitution permits the government to impose a variety of rules designed to address public safety as long as they are applied to all speakers in the same way. The government cannot restrict speech based on the content of the message.

The government may require a permit for the use of certain spaces such as streets or the use of amplified sound. A permit is not necessary to march on the sidewalk, so long as demonstrators do not block pedestrian passage, building entrances or streets. Demonstrators should also leave at least one-half of the sidewalk free for public use.

Whether you notify the police or not, expect police officers to show up.

You may bring protestor picket signs on subways or buses; but there are a few limitations.  Handing out pamphlets or flyers, participating in an artistic performance, taking photographs and speaking to riders is allowed.

Why does one need a permit to exercise these rights? The government has an obligation to ensure that First Amendment activity is safe for protesters and the general public, and does not interfere with the public’s access to or enjoyment of public or private spaces. Therefore, the government may impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of First Amendment-protected activities. These restrictions cannot place an unreasonable burden on the freedom of speech. The restrictions must be applied to everyone equally, and cannot discriminate based on the content of the message or the viewpoint or background of your group.

The police have a standing practice of barring the use of rigid materials as supports for signs at demonstrations (wooden sticks, pipes or plastic tubes). Instead, use cardboard tubing or hold your signs. You should refrain from bringing weapons, incendiary items, and anything else that can cause injury to your fellow demonstrators or police officers or others. If you are going to have many attendees at your event, you are expected to buy insurance to cover any potential damage there may be to property.

Let us not behave like irresponsible children who have no value for anything. If a demonstrator is a potential threat to public or private property let the organiser of the event take out requisite insurance cover. That way he will learn to channel grievances through his elected leaders or carry himself responsibly. What we have now breeds anarchy without advancing democracy.

The writer is a lawyer