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Civil Liberties in the United States

1st Amendment and Freedom of Assembly and Petition

The freedom of assembly may be subject to certain limitations, such as denial on grounds of public safety, or restrictions, such as public safety requirements regarding the time, place, and manner of assembly.

The 1st Amendment grants Americans the right to assemble and to petition for the redress of grievances. Citizens may assemble and demonstrate peacefully on public property—for example, the National Mall in Washington, D.C. However, as with freedom of speech, the right to assemble may be subject to certain limitations or restrictions. In Cox v. New Hampshire (1941), the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that some limitations on the right of public assembly were constitutional if imposed in the interests of public safety. The case involved a local New Hampshire law requiring a permit to be issued for a parade. A group of Jehovah's Witnesses held a sidewalk parade without obtaining the necessary permit, and they were fined for breaking the law. The group challenged both the permit requirement and the fee, arguing that their 1st Amendment rights had been violated. The Supreme Court declared that, although the government cannot regulate speech, it can place reasonable limitations on the time, place, and manner of public assemblies. Government, the court said, had a legitimate interest in ensuring the peaceable nature of such events.

In Edwards v. South Carolina (1963), the Supreme Court took a different stand in a case involving speech, assembly, and petition. A group of African American petitioners organized a march on the grounds of the South Carolina state house to protest policies of segregation, or the separation of races, in their state. The march was peaceful and orderly, and the marchers did not block traffic. When the marchers did not obey police orders to disperse, a number of them were arrested and later convicted of breaching the peace. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the arrests and convictions had violated the marchers' 1st Amendment rights.

In McDonald v. Smith (1985), the Supreme Court considered a case brought in civil court regarding the right to petition for a redress of grievances—government action of righting a wrong claimed by citizens. McDonald charged that Smith had written letters to President Ronald Reagan and other government officials of a defamatory nature about him in order to block his appointment as a U.S. attorney. Smith claimed that his right to petition the government was absolute. The court disagreed, ruling that the right to petition, like freedom of speech and the press, is subject to limitations.
In August 1963 more than 200,000 people gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to push for equal rights for African Americans.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 542010 (Scherman, Rowland)