The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech. In other words, the government cannot censor the expression of citizens. “Speech” goes beyond verbal language and includes print and other media as well. The right to peacefully assemble also arises out of the First Amendment. However, these rights are not absolute. A permit is needed to assemble. Speech that is vulgar or that creates public disorder is prohibited (an example is falsely saying that a bomb is on a plane.) While the government cannot otherwise restrict the content of the one’s speech, it is allowed to restrict the circumstance surrounding the speech.

Time, manner, and place restrictions

To illustrate, consider the following: A person stands on a public street corner in a business district at the noon hour and attempts to convince passers-by that income taxes should be lowered. Here, the government has no ability legal ability to interfere. Contrast this with a situation in which the same citizen is now shouting the same message from a loudly amplified speaker system in a residential neighborhood at 2:00 a.m. In this scenario, the government can and will object to the time, manner, and location in which the person expresses himself.

Protesting as speech versus breaking laws

At the intersection of free speech and free assembly arises the notion of protest. While peaceful protest has been used extensively and successfully to raise awareness of social causes, as it was, for example, in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, it has become adulterated in more recent years by disorderly conduct, which is a criminal act.

Perhaps the late President Ronald Reagan, who was Governor of California at the time, expressed this concept best by saying in a television interview, “All of it began when some of you who know better, and are old enough to know better, let young people think that they have the right to choose the laws they would obey as long as they do it in the name of social protest.” Clearly, protest is a right, but by the same token, it is not a license to commit unlawful acts.

Unlawful acts during protest

RCW 9A.84.030 states in part that one is guilty of the misdemeanor crime of Disorderly Conduct who, “intentionally obstructs vehicular or pedestrian traffic without lawful authority.” Protesters who sit in public streets in order to block cars from passage are violating the law.

RCW9A.76.020 provides that a “person is guilty of obstructing a law enforcement officer if the person willfully hinders, delays, or obstructs any law enforcement officer in the discharge of his or her official powers or duties.” As police officers attempt to clear streets unlawfully blocked, those who obstruct are guilty of a gross misdemeanor.

We are here to help

If you or a loved one has been arrested or charged with a criminal act in conjunction with a peaceful protest, protect your constitutionally guaranteed rights. Contact the criminal defense attorneys at the Nahajski Firm, in the Puget Sound area, at (206) 621-0500 for a free and confidential initial consultation.