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What are your rights when engaged in peaceful protests or demonstrations?

The first amendment guarantees the right to free speech and to peacefully gather in a group. Sidewalks, parks, and some other public places may usually be used to peacefully protest. Local, state and federal restrictions may apply, depending on where you protest.

BUT…you do not have the right use language that urges others to break the law or sparks violence, or to threaten another person. Even peaceful but unlawful activity is not protected.

…You may not protest on private property without permission from the owner.

…You cannot stop others from using the public space (e.g. block traffic).

AND… police may limit the time, place, and manner of a protest held without a permit in order to protect health and safety of participants, prevent damage to property or blocking traffic, and avoid blocking entry and exit from buildings. If a city imposes a curfew, protests may not occur during curfew hours.

As long as you are not stopped by police or arrested, you are free to walk away.

When is a permit required?

  • The City of Cleveland requires a permit when a parade will interfere with traffic or people using streets, sidewalks and public grounds. Check local ordinances for requirements in other cities.
  • In Cleveland, you can download and complete the application here. Instructions are included on the application. Call (216) 664-2484 for more information.
  • You do NOT need a permit if the protest does not block sidewalks or interfere with traffic; or if the protest happens within two days of unfolding current events. These “impromptu demonstrations” still require organizers to notify the Cleveland Division of Police 8 hours in advance of the demonstration by calling Field Operations at (216)623-5011.

What could the police do?

  • If people engage in criminal activity, such as disorderly conduct, obstructing official business, or rioting, they may be charged with a crime.
  • If police suspect involvement in criminal activity, a person may be detained, but not arrested.
  • If police suspect criminal activity and further suspect a person has a weapon and the officer has a reasonable fear for safety, pat downs (but not searches) are permitted only to determine if the person is armed.

What is disorderly conduct? Obstructing official business? Rioting?

  • Under Ohio law, “disorderly conduct” is “recklessly causing inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm to another by doing any of the following:”
    1. Fighting, threatening to hurt another person or property, or engaging in other violent behavior;
    2. Being unreasonably loud, using offensive language or gestures, or saying anything unwarranted and abusive;
    3. Insulting, taunting, or challenging in a way likely to provoke violence;
    4. Blocking movement or others on streets, sidewalks, or to/from public or private property;
    5. Creating offensive condition or risk of harm without any lawful and reasonable purpose.
  • Under Ohio law, “obstructing official business” is interfering with a public official’s performance of their lawful duties with the purpose to prevent, obstruct or delay the public official from acting in their official capacity.
  • Under Ohio law, “rioting” is participating with four or more people in disorderly conduct, with the purpose to either: commit a crime, interfere in government business, or interfere in an educational institution.

What happens if you are stopped by the police?

  • If police have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, you may be stopped for a short period of time.
  • You must provide name, address and birth date if you are in a public place and a police officer reasonably believes either:
    1. You are committing, have committed or are about to commit a crime; or
    2. You witnessed any felony offense of violence or felonious offense that creates a substantial risk of serious physical harm to people or property.
  • Refusing to provide this information is a misdemeanor.
  • Providing false information is a more serious criminal offense.
  • Police generally cannot search you or your things without your consent. If you do not consent, say so out loud.
  • Photos or video may be used to record your interactions with police. Unless you have been arrested, police cannot take your phone. The police cannot view content on your phone without a search warrant.
  • Memorize phone numbers you may need to call in case your phone is lost, damaged or taken.

What happens if you are arrested for a misdemeanor?

(note: some of this info does not necessarily apply to felony arrests)?

  • In Cleveland, if you are charged with a minor misdemeanor, you will likely be given a citation and summons to appear in court instead of being arrested.
  • In Cleveland, if you are charged with a misdemeanor, you may also be given a citation and summons to appear in court. But you could be arrested for a misdemeanor, in which case you may need to pay a bond and would likely be released the next day.
  • You should ask for the arresting officer’s badge number, name or other identifying information.
  • During an arrest, police may search your person or possessions without a warrant (except for your phone or your car – unless there is a specific justification for doing so).
  • The police must tell you the charge against you at the time of the arrest. Then, you will be transported to a police station for booking and processing.
  • You will be searched, photographed, fingerprinted and asked for basic personal information.
  • Your property should be kept safe and returned to you when released, as long as its not evidence of a crime or contraband.
  • If you are under 18 years, you should be released to a parent or guardian.

When do you have the right to remain silent?

  • You have the right to remain silent when questioned by police.
  • You cannot be arrested for refusing to answer questions.
  • You must provide limited personal information if stopped (as described above).
  • If you do not want to answer questions by police, you must clearly say so out loud.

When do you have the right to an attorney?

  • You have the right to an attorney if you are being charged with a crime that carries the possibility of a jail sentence.
  • Although you have the right to have an attorney present during questioning by the police, you are not likely to get one appointed at that time. However, you do not have to speak to police and should always seek legal advice before talking to the police.
  • If you cannot afford to hire an attorney, you may not get an appointed attorney until your first court appearance. Wait for your attorney before talking about what happened.

Other recommendations and resources for protesters:


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