freedom of assembly

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The right to hold public meetings and form associations without interference by the government. Freedom of peaceful assembly is guaranteed by the First Amendment (see also First Amendment) to the Constitution.

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notes for freedom of assembly

Segregation has been described as a violation of freedom of assembly.
The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.


What is freedom of assembly?

Freedom of assembly is the right to hold public meetings or gatherings without the government interfering.

An assembly is a gathering of people for some purpose. In the United States, freedom of assembly is guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States through the First Amendment.

In general, freedom of assembly means that the government cannot prevent citizens from peacefully gathering or meeting in a public place. Public places include city parks, government property that is open to the public, or sidewalks. The First Amendment explicitly protects freedom of assembly only against the federal government, but the Supreme Court has also ruled that freedom of assembly is protected against state governments according to the Fourteenth Amendment.

We commonly think of freedom of assembly as protecting our right to protest peacefully against the government or to work as a group to achieve political goals (collective activism). However, freedom of assembly also applies to other types of gatherings, like religious services, pride parades, and candlelight vigils. Freedom of assembly means that the government cannot completely ban or restrict these events.

Freedom of assembly does have limits, though. The biggest one is that only peaceful gatherings are allowed. Violent gatherings are illegal, meaning that riots, street fights, and insurrections are not protected by freedom of assembly. Additionally, gatherings that involve illegal activities and disrupt law and order are not allowed. For example, protests that interfere with traffic are not protected.

Finally, the Supreme Court has ruled that the government can restrict assemblies to certain times and places as long as it has a good reason for doing so and it isn’t discriminating against certain groups. In practice, this means organizers of large protests or parades often need to get a permit from the police department or city hall before they can legally hold a large gathering on public property.

Why is freedom of assembly important?

In the United States, the right to freedom of assembly is established in the First Amendment of the Constitution, ratified in 1791. According to the amendment, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”

The Founding Fathers considered freedom of assembly an important right. The British monarchy outlawed public assemblies out of fear that British citizens or colonists would rally together to try to overthrow the government. As a result, the American colonists were unable to legally assemble to express complaints about British laws and taxes that they thought were unfair. The absence of freedom of assembly contributed to the colonists’ lack of representation in their national government in Britain.

Freedom of assembly has played a major role in the democratic process of the United States. It has allowed for assemblies for important movements such as abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. Thanks to freedom of assembly, Americans can express themselves through events such as parades, marches, and protests.

Did you know … ?

The Communist Party helped extend freedom of assembly in state law. In De Jonge v. Oregon (1937), the state of Oregon arrested Communist Party member Dirk De Jonge for stating his communist beliefs to a gathering of people. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Orgeon had violated De Jonge’s constitutional rights, stating that freedom of assembly also applies at the state level.

What are real-life examples of freedom of assembly?

This photo shows the Women’s March held in Washington D.C. in 2017. Thanks to freedom of assembly, Americans are able to hold large, peaceful gatherings like this one.

Sophia Tulp / USA TODAY College

Like all freedoms, most Americans are very protective of the freedom of assembly.


Quiz yourself!

Which of the following would NOT be protected by freedom of assembly?

A. an anti-war protest
B. a civil rights march
C. a street fight
D. a candlelight vigil