Can a city or county prohibit a demonstration?



Can a city or county prohibit a demonstration?  | Larry Burris, Murfreesboro news, NewsRadio WGNS,Larry Burriss

Can a city or county prohibit a group from marching or having a demonstration? Hear what MTSU Professor Larry Burriss has to say about this interesting topic...

One of the first things they taught us in law school was the phrase, "maybe yes, maybe no." So, let's ask a question that's making the rounds: Does the first Amendment protect your right to free speech? The correct answer is, maybe yes, maybe no.

Remember, the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting free speech. It says nothing about Facebook, Twitter, Google or any other company. Within a few limits related to fair employment practices, private companies can pretty much restrict speech all they want. They can prohibit almost any kind of content they want. A company can even punish you for speech you make away from the workplace.

But. can a government entity, say a city or county, prohibit a group from marching or having a demonstration? The answer is, probably not. The government can place a variety of restrictions on the march, but government officials simply cannot prohibit a march because they don't like the content or what the marchers stand for.

These rules, though, do not apply to violent action. Speech, armbands, signs, marches and demonstrations are all protected. Violence is not.

Likewise, if the government officials can show there is a high probability of what is called "imminent lawless action," then they may be able to ban the speech. But a countervailing argument is that if you don't like the message, avoid the messenger.

Actually, I rather wonder, if the other side doesn't show up, thus totally eliminating the possibility of violence, would the news media would even bother to cover the march or demonstration.

It's particularly interesting to note that the demonstration in Boston last week was peaceful. So it will be difficult to argue that any time a particular group stages a march it will be accompanied by violence.

I've always heard that silence is golden. And I wonder, what if someone staged a march, and no one from the other side showed up?

I'm Larry Burriss.

LARRY L. BURRISS, Ph.D., J.D.
Professor
School of Journalism
Middle Tennessee State University
Murfreesboro, TN 37132