Freedom of Assembly: Definition, Court Cases & Examples

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the freedom of assembly. We will define the term, highlight examples and developments of the practice, end explore some of the complexities and court cases related to it. We will understand this freedom in the context of American political history.

Freedom of Assembly: A Critical Freedom

Is there a social or political cause you feel strongly about? Maybe you feel so strongly about it that you would join hundreds or thousands of others in peaceful protest regarding the issue? In the United States, citizens have the right to gather in groups to let their voice be heard, under the protection of our United States Constitution and the First Amendement.

Anti-war protests were widespread were widespread during the Vietnam War.
viet

This is an incredibly important freedom that mattered much to America's Founders. Prior to the American Revolution, colonists under British rule were limited in what they could say, write or act upon in regards to the government. After winning the American Revolution, our founding fathers wanted to make sure this right was guaranteed under the new government. The ''right of the people to peaceably assembly'' is outlined in the Bill of Rights, as the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1789. It reads:

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.

Under the Constitution, Americans have the right to gather peacefully and protest. As with anything though, it is not without restrictions. Let's take a look at some examples in history, as well as limitations on the amendment itself.

Examples of Freedom of Assembly Throughout American History

France

In the 1790s, the young American Republic found itself torn between allying itself with either France or Great Britain, but not both (because they were enemies of one another). Because France had been a military ally to the Colonies during the Revolutionary War, many Americans felt indebted to France and felt President John Adams was too pro-British. In this charged political climate, pro-France rallies broke out all over the U.S.. These rallies involved the waving of French flags, the singing of French songs, chants and speeches. The freedom for Americans to gather and engage in these rallies was due to freedom of assembly.

World War I

Flash forward to the early 20th century. With the First World War raging in Europe, many Americans were fearful the U.S. would become involved. People gathered and held rallies to promote American neutrality. Even after the U.S. entered the war, some people chose to publicly protest American involvement. Again, this right was guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Civil Rights Movement

In 1963, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous ''I Have a Dream'' Speech before some 300,000 people on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This speech was part of a organized protest rally called The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This massive protest was arranged to draw attention to civil rights, unemployment, poverty, and other issues affecting minority communities. Why was this protest rally permitted to take place? By now you've guessed it: freedom of assembly as outlined in the First Amendment.

It was at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous I Have a Dream Speech.
march

Limitations

There are certain limitations and complexities surrounding the freedom of assembly. The Constitution does not grant people the right to riot, destroy property, harm others, or use violence while protesting. The idea is that a protest or a political assembly should be peaceful. The government has determined it has the right to place restrictions on the time, place, and manner of peaceful assemblies.

The right to peaceably assemble also makes reference to the ''right to petition Congress for a redress of grievances,'' meaning the people have the right to gather together to change laws and policies they deem unfit. For a long time the right to assemble and the right to petition were regarded by experts as separate rights, but in 1875 the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Cruikshank that the right to peaceably assemble was an inherent and natural part of a republican government and that the two ''rights'' were related, if not joined.

Suspension of the freedom of assembly

Throughout American history, there have been times where the freedom of assembly has been suspended or limited.

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