Minnesota Protest Laws and First Amendment Rights

Recent proposals of laws to criminalize protesting activities may put a clear target on U.S. citizens’ right to peaceful assembly. Many states, including Minnesota, want to tighten restrictions and criminalize certain behaviors associated with protests in light of growing protests across the country.

Understanding First Amendment Rights

Under the First Amendment, everyone in the United States has the right to engage in a peaceful public assembly. While people reserve the right to assemble, Supreme Court precedents hold that the amendment does not give protesters an unlimited mitigated right to assemble anywhere at any time or to engage in any activity that may threaten public safety and/or order.

Government officials can legally place certain restrictions on assemblies as long as they give protesters other channels for communication and do not impose restrictions based on the content of the speech. They can also legally take action against protesters who interfere with public traffic or represent a clear and immediate threat to others.

The First Amendment and Supreme Court rulings in place already create limitations on peaceful assemblies to prevent illegal and interfering behaviors, but many states now want to take constitutional law one step further and increase penalties for certain protesting activities.

Minnesota’s Proposals to Change Protest Laws

A proposal known as HB322 would give the state the right to sue protesters found guilty of engaging in unlawful assembly activities or causing public disturbances. If passed, the state would force those liable to reimburse the state for any costs associated with responding to the protest. In January 2017 the bill’s author, Rep. Nick Zerwas, asserted local governments paid $2.5 million in the last 18 months to respond to demonstrations on freeways and around other public areas.

Another bill would change the penalties associated with protesting on highways, at airports, and in other transit spaces. The bill would change penalties from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. A protester could spend up to one year in prison or pay up to a $3,000 fine in some cases.

Critics of the bill believe the broad language and civil penalties the proposal lists would encourage racial profiling and keep citizens from feeling free to speak out in public. Some proponents believe the bill might make sense if the authors clarify the terms better.

In practice, the measures do not add any new restrictions on lawful assembly practices. They only increase the amount of penalties a person might face for engaging in current unlawful assembly practices.

Know Your Rights During a Protest

Right now, the country is divided. Protests are the norm, and change will only happen when citizens understand and assert their rights in a peaceful and law-abiding manner. You can:

  • Speak your mind. As long as you do not threaten someone with harm or engage in harassing activities, you can speak up about your beliefs and your opinion – even if your view is unpopular.
  • Speak up in a safe, public, and lawfully organized space. While the government places certain restrictions on large public assemblies, you can freely speak your mind in unrestricted spaces including sidewalks and parks.
  • Organize without fear of irrational permit denial. The government can require permits for large public assemblies, but cannot do so if the assembly would not disrupt traffic or public safety.
  • Hand out literature without a permit. If you don’t force materials on people or block walkways, you may hand out materials.

If you attend a protest and law enforcement officers stop you, do not ignore or taunt the officer. Remain calm, take slow and deliberate movements, do not consent to any search but do not physically resist one, and then ask the officer if you are free to go. If detained or arrested, comply with the officer, ask why you are being arrested, and ask to speak to your Mankato defense attorney.

You can always record an interaction with officers at a protest and use the information to assert your constitutional rights later. When it comes to enacting meaningful change, information is power.