First Amendment rights are a hot topic among protesters and those who must deal with frustrating traffic delays that are often a by-product of protests. Many who are now dealing regularly with delays caused by protesters in the streets often ask, “Are protesters allowed to block traffic?”
In general, for those who are protesting within the rules and regulations set forth by the local governing agencies, peacefully blocking traffic is allowed. However, if the protest is not within the rules and regulations or if the protest turns violent, different standards come into play.
The rules and regulations that governmental entities can impose on protests allow some strict limitations on the protest and the protestors. Also, those not involved in the protest are protected and limited in their actions in response to the protest. Knowing what your rights and limitations are in either case is important to prevent finding yourself arrested and in court.
What is the Law and How Far Can a Protest Go?
In most states, to conduct a legal protest that involves disrupting traffic or pedestrian flow requires a permit from the local governmental body. These rules and regulations generally cover:
- Street Fairs
- Political protests
- Any other gathering delaying or disrupting traffic
Permit requirements help local governments provide notice so drivers can be aware of where the delays may take place and plan accordingly. It also provides lead time for agencies like the police department and fire department to make plans to keep event participants safe.
What Can Happen to Protestors Who Block Traffic?
If you get arrested for blocking traffic at a protest that doesn’t have a permit, there are several charges you may face. Many of them depend on the actions you were taking when the police get involved. They include:
- Disturbing the peace
- Disorderly conduct
- Failing to obey a police officer’s instruction
- Obstruction of justice
- Resisting arrest
Many times, you will be removed from the area of the protest, held for a time, and then issued a ticket. In extreme cases, you may go to jail and face formal charges.
I Thought the First Amendment Ensured my Right to Free Speech?
Technically, you are correct. However, there are limits to your rights under the First Amendment. Local, state, and federal governments can impose restrictions on when and where you can exercise your First Amendment Rights. Everyone enjoys those rights and you can’t infringe on someone else’s rights to pursue yours.
The limits that governments can impose on your First Amendment rights include:
- The times that you can protest
- Where you can protest, including boundaries and limits
- The way you conduct your protest
- If you are conducting a march, there can be limits to the route you can take
Protesting Does Not Mean an Exemption from Existing Laws
Even if you have a permit to protest, you are not automatically exempt from existing laws. For example,
- You cannot enter private property without the consent of the owner of the property
- If your permit doesn’t provide using the street, charges of jaywalking and other traffic or civil infractions may occur
- You cannot threaten anyone or their property
- You must continue to obey instructions from the police
Without a permit to protest, there are even more limits to your rights. The limits and the penalties for protesting without a permit vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
When Things Go Bad
Even if you have a permit, if the protest gets out of hand, all bets are off. If even a small part of the protesters begin to commit acts that are considered illegal, the local government can void the permit and treat the entire protest as an illegal assembly.
On the Other Side – What Can I do When Stopped by Protestors Blocking the Street?
If the protest is peaceful, there is not too much you can do except try to be patient. Protesters who block traffic in a non-threatening manner may technically be violating some traffic or civil laws, but most jurisdictions view this as a form of free speech.
If you know that a protest is occurring, your best bet is to avoid the area. If you get caught up in a spontaneous demonstration, try to give yourself an alternative. Stop well short enough to take an alternate route if it is available.
Protecting Yourself and Others – Don’t be Taken by Surprise
If you do find yourself stopped by protestors blocking traffic, you should take a few precautions to protect yourself and anyone else in the car.
- Lock all your doors. Locking your doors while driving should be an everyday thing anyway and is automatic on many new cars.
- Roll up the windows. Put the glass between yourself and anyone who might approach your vehicle.
- Take the vehicle out of gear. You don’t want to cause a vehicle accident inadvertently.
- Have your cell phone handy.
- Tune to a local radio station to get news updates about the situation.
What Are my Options if the Protestors Surround my Car?
The act of simply surrounding your car at a distance is not considered an overt threatening act. In this case, your best option is to sit quietly and don’t respond to the protestors. Don’t get involved in any kind of argument or debate. Remain aware of what is happening all around your vehicle.
Can You Run over Protesters Blocking the Road?
No, you cannot run over a protestor. Trying to push a non-threatening protestor out of the way with your car may get you arrested and charged with assault. In some states, a vehicle is often considered a deadly weapon when used to push or strike a person.
A protestor standing in front of your car refusing to move is not considered a threat. Many protestors surrounding your car is not considered a threat. Even if the protestors slap, bang, or bounce your car, convincing a jury that you felt enough fear for your life to run over a protestor might be a stretch.
Under no circumstances do you want to place yourself in a position of defending your actions if another person is injured or killed by those actions.
What if I do Feel Threatened?
Just being uncomfortable doesn’t justify you to nudge or push protestors with your car. In most states, the only justification for using deadly force to defend yourself is if you are in danger of death or serious bodily injury. The definitions differ from state to state.
The definition of “fear of death or serious bodily injury” is the key. If you are in your car with the doors locked and people are making you uncomfortable by shouting or making threats, you probably aren’t justified in using your car to escape.
If protestors begin to pound on your car, rock it back and forth, or climb on your car, the situation still may not justify using your car as a weapon by pushing through the protestors. A jury may find that you are still reasonably safe inside your car with no fear of death or serious bodily injury.
Beyond the Point of Fear
If you are beyond the point of fear for your life, you may be justified using our vehicle to escape. If the protestors begin to break windows or brandish weapons, you are certainly facing a different level of threat.
Just remember that if you injure or kill someone, you will probably end up in court, justifying your actions to a jury. What you perceived as a serious threat to your life or the life of others in your vehicle may not seem so serious to a jury removed from the situation.
When Faced with a Protest – Avoidance is Your Best Action
Active protests may have legal permission to block traffic. Even in these cases, it is better to avoid the area and the problems than getting involved. If you are caught up in a spontaneous protest, stay aware of the situation, take action to protect yourself, and leave the area as fast as possible. Only as a last resort should you use the power and weight of your vehicle to protect yourself.
This article is not a substitute for professional legal advice. This article does not create an attorney-client relationship, nor is it a solicitation to offer legal advice.