Peaceful protests are a protected American tradition

Americans have always gathered to make their views known. And the U.S. government respects and protects the rights of its citizens to protest peacefully on any topic.

This response presents a stark contrast to what happens in totalitarian regimes around the world, where protesters and journalists are silenced.

The U.S. has enshrined in its Constitution freedoms of speech and peaceable assembly, as well as redress of grievances to the government.

While local governments can apply restrictions on protests related to time, place and manner, they must apply these standards equally to all and may not deny a protest based on the protest’s message, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

As a result, Americans gather to make their views known on all kinds of subjects. Among the largest rallies held along Washington’s National Mall have been:

  • The March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation in 1993.
  • The Million Man March in 1995.
  • The March for Women’s Lives in 2004.
  • The Women’s March on Washington in 2017.

Some protests do require permits, but municipalities must apply the same standards to all applicants and not consider the subject of the protest. Generally, permits are denied only if the protest poses a risk to public safety or is violent in intention.

Protesters in New York City require a permit only if they will use amplified sound on public property, gather with more than 20 people in a public park, march in a street or have a procession of 50 or more vehicles.

If protesters congregate on a sidewalk in New York City without obstructing traffic or using amplified sound, no permit is required.

Crowd gathering by the White House (© Jacquelyn Martin/AP Images)
Demonstrators protest on June 6 near the White House. (© Jacquelyn Martin/AP Images)

The nation’s capital is made up of both federal land and local territory. While any protest of more than 25 people on Washington’s federal land requires a permit, protests on local territory — streets, sidewalks and Metro stations — does not need a permit if one or more of the following conditions are met:

  • The group doesn’t prevent pedestrians from using sidewalks.
  • Attendance will be under 50 and the protest won’t be in a street.
  • The protest breaks out spontaneously.

The federal property includes the National Mall, which sees approximately 750 demonstrations each year, according to the National Park Service.

In 2019, the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia — which oversees permits for protests on the city’s local land — received 457 applications, not one of which was denied.

In an October 2019 speech, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo compared the U.S. approach to China’s. “We want to preserve our freedoms — our freedom of speech,” Pompeo said, “and we want to make sure that information flows freely everywhere.”