PrefaceThe basic human right to peacefully assemble is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. This right has played an important role all through history, and is as vibrant and vital a part of the democratic process today as it was in Colonial America. The right to peaceably assemble goes hand in hand with the freedom of speech also guaranteed by the Constitution.The United States has a rich history of groups coming together and exercising their right to peacefully assemble. Some groups assemble to show support, others to protest perceived injustices. Some have noble causes such as Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement; others may have ignoble intent, such as the Ku Klux Klan. Motivation notwithstanding, the Constitution guarantees the right of every citizen to peacefully assemble, thereby allowing them to publicly express and espouse their views, unpopular though they may be.Throughout history, the fundamental right of public assembly has been used to great effect, sometimes serving as the catalyst for changing public perception of societal norms, sometimes galvanizing support for or opposition to a particular cause. Without the right of public assembly, the ability of the citizenry to participate in their own self-governance and self-determination would be severely impaired.
Problems have arisen, however, with ambiguity blurring the boundary between public assembly and breach of law. What exactly constitutes public assembly? What actions should be protected by the Constitution and what actions should be prosecuted by the legal system? The distinction between these may not be as disparate as one might think. Still, the potential for such problems notwithstanding, public assembly remains a potent and relevant tool of democracy.Chapter 1 - The Human Right to Public AssemblyPublic assembly is a human right. The accepted definition of an assembly, asdefined by common law, is a gathering of three or more people for a specific purpose (“Unlawful Assembly”). In the United States, the right to publicly assemble is granted by the Constitution under the First Amendment. As interpreted by the Supreme Court, this right was intended by the framers of the Constitution tobe inviolable, but not absolute. Ironically, the very document that guarantees a highlevel of protection to the right to peacefully assemble, the Constitution, also restricts the time, place, and manner in which the assembly can take place. Unlawful assembly is, as its name implies, illegal. The point at which public assembly becomes unlawful can be blurry and, especially in modern times, is oftensubjective and ambiguous. The common law offense that often goes hand-in-hand with unlawful assembly is breach of the peace. Breach of the peace is defined as “acts or conduct that seriously endanger or disturb public peace and order.” Breach
of the peace constitutes disorderly conduct and can include a wide range of acts.