What are the limits when your rights meet my rights?
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Our rights and freedoms are freedom from government interference in our lives. Reasonable restrictions designed to protect public health and safety are allowed.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects several important freedoms. It reads:
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.
These rights protect private citizens from government interference in important areas of life, such as the right to speak freely about your ideas and opinions, the right to worship as you choose or to not worship at all, the right to gather peaceably with others to support or oppose a cause, and the right to have news reported by a press that is free from government control even when the news is unfavorable to the government.
But these rights are not without limits. Exercise of our rights can be restricted when they pose a danger or threaten harm to others.
Freedom of speech does not include the right to cause harm by shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, to defame someone by publishing lies about them, to publish obscenity, to commit blackmail or perjury, or to threaten someone with actual harm. Shouting
“fire” in a crowded theater is a longstanding, often-quoted example of this principle.
The right to gather in public to support a cause or to petition the government to act on an issue is protected by the First Amendment. But those who gather have a responsibility to the safety of others. Government can limit activities that become violent.
Those who gather in protest must also obey laws on criminal trespass, littering, excessive noise, crowd control and permit requirements.
Our First Amendment rights can also be limited to protect public health and safety. The right to protest in public spaces can be restricted when the size of the crowd or the location presents a danger to public safety, such as when it blocks traffic on
highways and bridges.
Streets and parks are traditionally considered places where the public is free to assemble, protest and petition under their First Amendment rights. But not all public property is open for public protest. The right to public assembly and protest is not
allowed where it would interfere with the governmental functions being carried on there. You have a right to assemble and protest on the sidewalk outside a courthouse, but not inside the courthouse.
State and local governments can also act to protect public health and safety by setting curfews or by requiring quarantine of humans, animals or plants to prevent the spread of diseases. But the right of government to protect public health is not unlimited. These restrictions must be reasonable and cannot be used as an excuse to limit other First Amendment freedoms.
Our rights and freedoms are freedom from government interference in our lives. Reasonable restrictions designed to protect public health and safety are allowed. But they must be related to the public good and must not unreasonably interfere with our First Amendment rights.
Know your rights and the limits that can be imposed when the exercise of your rights poses a danger to the health and safety of others.
To learn more about the U. S. Constitution and your First Amendment rights, visit constitutioncenter.org and www.uscourts.gov/about-federalcourts/educational-resources/.