What You Need to Know About Your Rights During a Protest

Legal experts weigh in on recording protests, searching phones and more

Two people protesting near the White House
Demonstrators hold up signs against a newly constructed fence near the White House while protesting on June 2.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
By Tobias Carroll / June 3, 2020 7:00 am

Over the course of the last few days, the nation has abounded with protests in cities large and small. Some of these protests have been marred by police violence and mass arrests — which may leave some readers wondering what their legal rights are if they are taking part in a protest. CNN sought the expertise of two people with plenty of relevant knowledge here: Timothy Zick, a professor at the College of William & Mary Law School, and Emerson Sykes, staff attorney for the ACLU.

First and foremost, the right to protest is guaranteed under the First Amendment, though the government does have the power to set certain conditions, such as the curfews that have been established by several cities in the U.S. Also covered? Your right to record what’s taking place in and around the protest.

Sykes recommends packing light if you’re going to be protesting. Besides a snack and water, the ongoing pandemic makes a mask important as well. Sykes also recommends writing the number of a law organization somewhere on your body, in the event that you need legal aid.

Zick and Sykes note that police do not have the authority to search your phone unless they have a warrant; they also do not have the authority to delete images or videos from your phone. In the event of an arrest, you have the right to contact a lawyer, and to have a private conversation with them. Police can listen in if you call a friend or family member after being arrested, however.

CNN’s guide to legal questions for protestors is a comprehensive resource. It also does a good job of reminding people to keep a level head, and to stay focused in a time of crisis — an important thing to remember.

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