to use your First Amendment Rights
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 of the right of the people peaceably
to assemble, and to petition for a redress of grievances.”
1st Amendment to the US Constitution
Over the years the courts have interpreted the First Amendment and
have assigned different levels of protection to different kinds
of speech. Non commercial political speech and petitioning is afforded
the highest protection of any form of speech.
The most important factors in determining your right to exercise
free speech are:
The location you choose.
The type of activity you will engage in.
A Word of Caution, Do not carry anything
illegal on you while petitioning or protesting in public!
Make sure to check your pockets and wallet before you arrive at
your location. If you are harassed or even arrested by law enforcement
your issue remains one of pure speech and the case can usually be
disposed of easily.
Different locations receive different levels of protection from
the courts regarding free speech activities. Some locations, like
outside of courthouses, have been traditionally set aside as public
forums. Other traditional public forums include outside government
facilities, all public sidewalks and most public parks.
The Government has reserved the right to regulate free speech in
what is known as reasonable time, place and manner, i.e. screaming
on a megaphone at 4:20 in the morning in a residential neighborhood
would probably violate all three standards.
Do not rely on law enforcement or administrators
to define what activities are permitted at particular locations,
find out for yourself. The content of your speech is irrelevant
in determining reasonable time, place and manner.
Do you need a permit
to engage in free speech?
Many types of speech activities do not require a permit. When they
are required, the permitting scheme must be content neutral, must
not be cost prohibitive and must be granted promptly. Types
of speech that generally do not require permits are handing out
of literature, petitioning, holding a sign or talking on a soapbox
in any public area.
Any citizen has a right to hand out literature and collect petitions
outside a government building. When choosing the location be sure
not to obstruct any entrances, exits, walkways, fire hydrants. You
may approach any member of the public to ask them to sign a petition
or take a pamphlet, be sure not to threaten or harass anyone that
disagrees with you or refuses to sign.
Festivals, Parades, Demonstrations
and Amplified sound
In order to put on an event that involves utilizing public facilities
a permit is usually required. When a large group of people wants
to gather and use amplified sound and reserve a particular location
like a bandshell in a city, county or state park, the government
has the right to set up a permitting process. This
process is limited in what it can require of the applicant and must
be constitutional. The primary purpose of the application
process should be to make sure that two or more groups are not scheduled
to use the same space at the same time. Provided the event is not
charging admission or restricting attendance and is not selling
alcohol, there is very little the government can require of you
to use public facilities.
Amplified sound, a megaphone or a public address system, that exceeds
the local noise ordinance is not always guaranteed by the first
Noise ordinances are often vague and unconstitutional. Waivers to
the noise ordinance are routinely granted for special events upon
request. In the case of a megaphone outside a government building,
police will often say you are disrupting the proceedings inside;
send someone inside to see if this is true. If Police say you are
exceeding the decibel limit ask to see the meter readings.
If you are planning a parade that involves closing down streets
a permit is almost always required, however a march that stays on
public sidewalks and obeys all traffic signals often does not.
When receiving any permit application always
ask for a copy of the corresponding ordinances that authorize the
*The State Police
in a raid on a Monday night kill an accused marijuana grower, and
you and a group of citizens wish to demonstrate the following morning
at the State Police Headquarters and petition to have the Police
Even if there are permitting procedures in place for demonstrations
at Police HQ, they cannot be construed to prevent spontaneous protests.
Notification to authorities on protests is
a courtesy and not a constitutional requirement. As always
take note of your local noise and traffic ordinances, unless your
intent is nonviolent civil disobedience to provoke mass arrests.
Attending Public Meetings and Proceedings
Every citizen has a right to attend public proceedings, and in most
cases record and photograph the proceedings. This includes access
to courtrooms, city and county council meetings and any session
of the State Legislature. Around the State, judges, prosecutors
and bailiffs have attempted to deny citizens access to courtrooms
to witness or record proceedings. If this happens to you please
follow the reporting procedures outlined in this Section and send
them to Kevin
Aplin president of FL CAN.
Note: Flash photography during court proceedings is generally prohibited
and it is a crime to secretly record anybody’s private conversation.
A Judge may also ban cameras from a proceeding often to protect
the identity of informants. However; a citizen has a right to a
hearing on why cameras or recorders are being excluded.
The remainder of this section is designed to encourage you to examine
various situations that could occur during a free speech exercise.
Most of the scenarios come from the case files of FL CAN”s Legal
Support Network. Consider the responses you might give during each
encounter and then refer to the latter part of the section for the
Legal Support Network’s recommendations.
Scenario A Part One
Three of you are petitioning for medical marijuana outside your
county courthouse, you are standing outside well clear of the doorways,
you have a sign set up to the side that criticizes the police for
arresting patients and you are handing out literature.
A court bailiff approaches you and says "you can’t do that here,
you’re going to have to leave."
You should always politely respond saying “I have a first amendment
right to speak to people on public property"
The bailiff may say,
See Here for
legal information regarding this situation.
|1) “ Well, I am going to call the sheriff."
|2) "This property belongs to the courthouse."
|3) "Somebody complained."
|4) "Do you have a permit?"
|5) "Well, marijuana is illegal and you can’t do that
|6) "You’re going to have to move across the street
onto city property?"
|7) "You can hand out flyers, but you have to remove
|8) "You can’t approach people, they have to come to
|9) "Can I see some ID?"
|10) "I’m going to check with the judge, you have to
stop while I check"
|11) "Come with me so we can talk inside?"
|12) "Well this is against our policy."
Scenario A Part Two
Scenario A has escalated and the bailiff has called the sheriff.
You are continuing to petition, two deputies have arrived, along
with a friend of yours with a video camera. By
now you should have written down or memorized the bailiffs name.
The deputies might say,
| 1) "Who’s in charge here?"
|2) "Do you have a permit?"
|3) "Can I see some ID?"
|4) "Come over to the car with us?"
|5) "We’re going to have to confiscate that sign."
|6) "Stop filming us."
|7) "We’re going to have to search your backpack."
|8) "If you don’t have a permit, you will be arrested
if you refuse to leave."
Recording devices are always recommended when you are out doing
free speech work. Don’t count on the friend to just show up! Pre-plan
your next encounter with Government officials by having an audio
recorder and camera or better yet, a video or digital recorder on
hand. See examples of Audio and Video Captures of Free Speech Altercations
for legal information regarding this situation.
Scenario B Part One
You and some friends have gathered at a city park. You have set
up a table and a canopy on the grass at the edge of the major walkway
inside the park. Your table is not blocking the pathway. On the
table you have literature, petitions, voter registration cards and
a donation jar, as well as books, bumper stickers and T-shirts all
relating to the cause.
The parkkeeper approaches and says:
for legal information about this situation.
| 1) "You”re going to have to pack up and leave, this is
against park regulations."
|2) "Do you have a permit?”
|3) "I’m going to call the Police."
Scenario B Part Two
The City Police arrive and could say:
for legal information about this situation.
| 1) "You can stay as long as you take down the table and
|2) "You can’t sell anything without a vending license."
|3) "We are going to write you a citation for vending without
|4) "We are going to seize your display."
You are outside a Wal-Mart at the local mall, you are petitioning
with a clipboard and handing out flyers, the Salvation Army is handing
out information and collecting donations next to you. The store
manager comes out and tells you to leave or they will call the police.
What do you say?
You have set up a small card table containing literature and a donation
jar on Main St. downtown next to a New York Times vending box. You
are not blocking the sidewalk or obstructing a fire hydrant. You
are taking up no more space than the newspaper box. The Police arrive
and make the threats that we have discussed, what do you say?
You are outside a major sporting event or concert at your city stadium
or arena, i.e. a football game or a Rolling Stones concert.
An administrator who says they represent the stadium says:
|1) "You are on private property and if you don’t leave I
will have you arrested for trespassing."
You are petitioning at the Local bus, train station, airport or
public transit area and are asked to leave. What will you do?
The Follow Up:
Now, let’s suppose that after any of the above situations you have
been sent to a government office to get a permit for your activity
i.e. The Department of Parks, The County Clerk or the Police Department.
You ask for the permit forms and corresponding ordinances relating
to your activity.
The bureaucrat you are dealing with says:
Check Here for
legal information about this situation.
| 1) "There is no permit required for that activity."
|2) "Our policy prohibits that kind of activity."
|3) "You have to schedule an item on the agenda at the next
meeting of the county commission in three weeks and get their
|4) "Here are the forms including fees and insurance requirements.”
|5) "You have to get permission from the County Judge and
the Chief of Police."
|6) "You have to go and petition the businesses and residents
in the area that you’re planning to speak."
|7) "You need to submit your proposed activity to us in writing
before we will give you the forms."
|8) "The person that deals with that won’t be back until
|9) “The area you are requesting is managed or leased to
a private corporation so you have to ask their permission."
Checklist for 1st Amendment
| Know your location.
Empty your pockets ~ don’t carry anything illegal.
Be Firm, Polite, Calm and Consistent at all times.
Smile and Good Luck
Reporting incidences to FL CAN or your attorney
Recording your encounters with law enforcement
immediately helps keep the information clear later. When writing
a report, always include the following information:
| Time, date and location of the encounter.
Names and contact information of all witnesses.
Name, title and department of all authorities involved.
Write the details of the encounter in a short narrative: include
any relevant details about the location or what led up to the incident.
Details about the conduct of the authorities are very important.
Quotes that can be substantiated with video or audio are always
In the rare event that an arrest took place, also include the arresting
agency, name of arresting officer, where the person is being held,
amount of bail and time, date and location of next appearance.
Reports should always contain supporting paperwork when available.
Supporting papers might include, ordinances, arrest reports, permit
forms, copies of the literature being distributed.
Each person directly involved should also write a separate statement.
These statements may be used later if litigation becomes necessary.
FL CAN’s Legal Support Network
is available to help you understand and exercise your First Amendment
rights. A talented team of attorneys’ advice the Legal Support Staff
and FL CAN’s legal support network can usually provide you with
the name of qualified counsel in your area.
FL CAN does not provide money for bail or attorney’s fees, however;
FL CAN will often help find resources that do provide these services.
Contact FL CAN @ 321-253-3673, E-mail.
2613 Larry Ct. Melbourne, FL 32935
Support for FL CAN’s free legal support
network are always needed and appreciated.