Right To Assemble
By Lisa A. Bancuk
Graduate Student, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University
In the First Amendment to the United States Constitution it states: "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" (Bloom p. 81).
The right of a citizen to peacefully 1) parade and gather or 2) demonstrate support or opposition of public policy or 3) express one's views is guaranteed by the freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble.
The First Amendment states that Congress can make no law hindering the right of the people to peaceably assemble. Before the Bill of Rights, the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress declared on October 14, 1774:
The inhabitants of the English colonies in North-America, by the immutable laws of nature, the principals of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following rights: They have a right peaceably to assemble, consider their grievances, and petition the king: and that all prosecutions, prohibitory proclamations, and commitments for the same are illegal. (First Amendment Cyber-Tribune)
In 1776, Pennsylvania's declaration of rights guaranteed peaceable assembly, being the first state to recognize this right. Interestingly, in 1670, William Penn, the founder of the colony, was arrested on Gracechurch Street, London, for giving a sermon to a group of Quakers in the street in front of his church. London officials had locked the hall and forbidden Penn "to preach in any building" so he took his sermon to the streets. "He was charged with unlawful, tumultuous assembly that disturbed the king's peace. The judge in the case tried to force the jury to return a verdict of guilty for William Penn… This was a bitter memory for those who believed in religious freedom and the right for people to assemble peacefully" (FACT). Later declarations of rights gave citizens of other states the right to peaceful assembly - North Carolina (1776), Massachusetts (1790), and New Hampshire (1784).
On September 25, 1789, the House and Senate agreed on twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution and submitted them to the states for ratification. Then, on November 21, 1798, North Carolina, with a proposed bill of rights by Congress, ratified the original Constitution by a 194-77 vote. Virginia ratified the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791, making it part of the Constitution.
Originally, the right to assemble was considered less important than the right to petition. Yet, over the years, the courts have interpreted the First Amendment and the right of assembly has gained an importance of its own. Listed are some key United States Supreme Court decisions relating to the right to peaceably assemble (FACT):
United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876), the Supreme Court said that the "right of the people peaceably to assemble for the purpose of petitioning Congress for a redress of grievances, or for anything else connected with the powers and duties of the national government, is an attribute of national citizenship, and as such, under the protection of, and guaranteed by, the United States." The high court applied the liberty only to any federal government's encroachment.
De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S 353 (1937), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the right to peaceably assemble "for lawful discussion, however unpopular the sponsorship, cannot be made a crime." The decision applied the First Amendment right of peaceful assembly to the states through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Hague v. C.I.O., 307 U.S. 496 (1939), the high court ruled that peaceful demonstrators may not be prosecuted for "disorderly conduct." This case also secured streets and sidewalks as public forums.
Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88 (1940), the Supreme Court held that orderly union picketing that informs the public of issues is protected by the constitutional freedom of speech of the press and the right of peaceable assembly and cannot be prosecuted under state loitering and picketing laws.
Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229 (1963), in an 8-to-1 decision, the high court overturned the breach of peace convictions of 180 black students who had peacefully marched to the state capitol to protest discrimination. The police stopped the demonstration and arrested the students because they were afraid that the 200-300 who gathered to watch the demonstration might cause a riot. The court held the state law unconstitutionally over-broad because it penalized the exercise of free speech, peaceable assembly, and the right of petition for a redress of grievances. A disorderly crowd, or the fear of one, cannot be used to stop a peaceful demonstration or cancel the right of peaceable assembly.
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
The right to assemble is intricately related to the formation and growth of the philanthropic sector. It is the need to assemble, to come together and share common beliefs and act upon those beliefs that has created the sector. These groups have formed for many purposes, including as a part of reform movements (from the Civil War to the suffrage cause to the civil rights struggles), for charitable causes (i.e., American Red Cross), and for religious practice (churches).
The right to peaceable assembly provides the opportunity for all citizens, whether they are employed by the federal or state government, by private businesses, or by a nonprofit organization, to participate in America's political life and in the electoral process. An example is picketing in cases of civil right issues and anti-war demonstrations. Picketing is protected when it is for a lawful purpose and is conducted in an orderly manner and publicizes some type of grievance. Many groups and organizations use assembly as a way to show support for an idea or dispute.
Key Related Ideas
- Civil Rights
- Individual Rights
- Labor Rights and Agreements
- Peaceable Assembly
Important Related Nonprofit Organizations
- National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
- National Organization for Women
- National Rifle Association
Amar, Akhil Reed, The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
The Bill of Rights and Beyond, 1791-1991. Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, Library of Congress, 1991.
Bloom, Sal. The Story of the Constitution. United States Constitution Sesquicentennial, Washington D.C, 1937.
Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. Index of/Constitution [online]. Available: www.law.cornell.edu/constitution. (30 March 2001).
First Amendment Cyber-Tribune. Right to Peaceably Assemble - History and Definition [online]. No longer available. (30 March 2001).
National Archives and Records Administration [online]. Available: www.nara.gov. (30 March 2001).
The United States Constitution www.house.gov/Constitution/Constitution.html.
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