Freedom of Assembly in the United States

A Short History

Anti - Vietnam War Protest

Robert Walker/Getty Images 

Democracy can't function in isolation. For the people to make a change, they have to get together and make themselves heard. The U.S. government has not always made this easy.


The First Amendment to the U.S. Bill of Rights explicitly protects "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."


In United States v. Cruikshank (1876), the Supreme Court overturns the indictment of two white supremacists charged by as part of the Colfax massacre. In its ruling, the Court also declares that states are not obligated to honor the freedom of assembly - a position that it will overturn when it adopts the incorporation doctrine in 1925.


In Thornhill v. Alabama, the Supreme Court protects the rights of labor union picketers by overturning an Alabama anti-union law on free speech grounds. While the case deals more with freedom of speech than freedom of assembly per se, it has - as a practical matter - had implications for both.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the founding document of international human rights law, protects the freedom of assembly in several instances. Article 18 speaks of "the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others" (emphasis mine); article 20 states that "[e]veryone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association" and that "[n]o one may be compelled to belong to an association"; article 23, section 4 states that "[e]veryone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests"; and article 27, section 1 states that "[e]veryone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits."


In NAACP v. Alabama, the Supreme Court rules that the Alabama state government cannot bar the NAACP from legally operating in the state.


In Edwards v. South Carolina, the Supreme Court rules that the mass arrest of civil rights protestors conflicts with the First Amendment.


In Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court upholds the First Amendment rights of students assembling and expressing views on public educational campuses, including public college and university campuses.


Outside of the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, law enforcement officials create a "designated protest zone" into which protesters are herded. This is an early example of the "free speech zone" idea that will become especially popular during the second Bush administration.


During a conference of the World Trade Organization held in Seattle, Washington, law enforcement officials enforce restrictive measures intended to limit the expected large-scale protest activity. These measures include a 50-block cone of silence around the WTO conference, a 7 pm curfew on protests, and the widespread use of nonlethal police violence. Between 1999 and 2007, the city of Seattle agreed to $1.8 million in settlement funds and vacated the sentences of protestors arrested during the event.


Bill Neel, a retired steelworker in Pittsburgh, brings an anti-Bush sign to a Labor Day event and is arrested on the grounds of disorderly conduct. The local district attorney refuses to prosecute, but the arrest makes national headlines and illustrates growing concerns over free speech zones and post-9/11 civil liberties restrictions.


In Oakland, California, police violently attack protesters affiliated with the Occupy movement, spraying them with rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. The mayor later apologizes for the excessive use of force.

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Your Citation
Head, Tom. "Freedom of Assembly in the United States." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Head, Tom. (2021, February 16). Freedom of Assembly in the United States. Retrieved from Head, Tom. "Freedom of Assembly in the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).