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The Right to Assemble

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 the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

By
Michael W. Flynn
September 29, 2007

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First, a disclaimer: Although I am an attorney, the legal information in this podcast is not intended to be a substitute for seeking personalized legal advice from an attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.  Further, I do not intend to create an attorney-client relationship with any listener.   

Today’s topic. James from Atlanta wrote:

My question pertains to city parks. These areas are owned by the city and maintained with taxpayer dollars, making them public places. Do city ordinances setting park hours conflict with the U.S. constitutional right to assemble? It seems to me that a public place should be accessible to the public at all times.

 The short answer is that the Constitution guarantees the right to public assembly, but that the government may place reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner for using a public space.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides:

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 the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Please note that, while the text seems to apply only to Congress, the First Amendment applies to state and local governments also by operation of the Fourteenth Amendment. This is known as the “incorporation doctrine,” which I do not have time to discuss in detail. Suffice it to say, the First Amendment applies to your local city government. 

The text of the amendment states that the government “shall make no law” that abridges free speech and peaceable assembly, so it seems that James is on to something. If the local city government enacts a rule that closes city parks at 10 P.M., this would seem to be a law that abridges free speech and assembly. But, the Supreme Court has interpreted this language to permit the government to place reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner in which people publicly speak or assemble.

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