“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.”
Freedom of assembly typically does not get as much attention as the other rights protected by the First Amendment, but it is just as important. Peaceful protest and public discussion are essential in a free society, so the Founders believed it necessary to protect this particular liberty.
Freedom to Assemble
The First Amendment prevents the government from interfering with “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” This ensures that Americans cannot use the power of the state to suppress groups whose views they find offensive.
Americans enjoy the ability to use their collective voices to sway public opinion on certain matters. It also allows them to protest the conduct of the government if officials are not living up to their mandates. Many different movements have shaped American politics and culture; this is usually achieved through groups of people assembling to promote a particular message. Black Americans in the Civil Rights era often assembled to stage protests against Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation.
The founders included freedom of assembly in the Bill of Rights because, under British rule, people were not generally allowed to gather for political causes. This was because King George III did not want to allow public demonstrations against his rule.
Assembly in America
The First Amendment’s protections do not mean that governments cannot place regulations on assembly. The state cannot prohibit a public assembly simply because it wishes to stop the event, but it can put limitations on the time and location. The Supreme Court held that restrictions could be placed as long as they “are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, … are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and … leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.”
Like King George, many governments today do not allow their citizens to organize protests and other such demonstrations. In some cases, nations use violence to stop even peaceful assemblies. This is yet another reason Americans should be grateful for the freedoms protected by our Bill of Rights.