When is Social Activism Disorderly Conduct?

social activism lawyer

Minneapolis Criminal Defense Lawyer

In times of political or social conflict, many Americans feel the need to protest or challenge the institutions they feel need to change.

This type of social activism includes marches, public rallies or meetings, and other public gestures such as strikes, as well as the more traditional and conservative techniques of letter-writing and consulting the elected representative.

This type of social activism can be very effective, and has a long history in this country. But during increasingly contentious times, social activism that is held in the public forum carries increasing risks of alarm, anger, and conflict.

This issue is a challenge in Minnesota, where disorderly conduct is defined as offensive, obscene, abusive, boisterous or noisy public behavior that can be assumed to arouse alarm, anger, or resentment in others.

There are other statues relating to public gatherings, such as disturbing a lawful gathering, but fighting or brawling during a public march or rally will likely lead to a charge of disorderly conduct. How can a politically-minded activist protect himself and others when planning an action?

It is important in planning to secure all the needed permissions to hold the gathering in a public place, on public or private land.

In city-owned parks, for instance, or a march that takes place on a city street, permission needs to be secured from the Department of Public Works at least five days ahead of a scheduled protest, and there is a $25.00 fee. Street use permits are available online; a march is usually considered a parade for this permit.

Minnesota’s ACLU describes the rights to protest that are protected under the first amendment freedom of speech rights.

This includes the right to gather and protest without a permit, if time doesn’t allow and the protest is in response to an immediate action, such as a shooting. In addition, the ACLU detailed the challenges to first amendment rights under the Patriot Act for those who are not citizens.

Issues related to permits usually don’t end up with a disorderly conduct charge, however. For leadership, one important part of organizing a civil protest is to inform members joining the action of the risks, and suggest ways to de-escalate if threatened, abused, or attacked during a protest. Also, the addition of drugs or alcohol usually can make a volatile situation deteriorate quickly, and police will act with more dispatch to remove those who appear intoxicated as a threat to public safety.

Many who are participating in their first march or social protest have only discussed the issues of concern with those who feel the same as they do, and who are moved to action. It can be frightening and disorienting to be met with harsh comments, to have trash thrown at one, to be cursed in public.

Leadership should make sure the members of a planned public gathering to protest an action understand how to handle these sorts of interactions without getting physical in return.

Documenting with cameras is always a good response to violence and physical challenge during a protest, after securing personal safety. Staying within the parameters of the march, such as on the sidewalk or street, and not leaving the permitted location to engage others is critical.

If children or teens are participating in the march, they should have adult mentors who stay with them and offer another level of protection from abuse and violence. In addition, having media present with cameras to document the action can restrain some members of an opposition viewpoint from public attack.

For leaders working on a social or political protest in a public arena, planning ahead for the risk of violence, abuse, and other challenges from the opposition viewpoint is prudent leadership. A charge of disorderly conduct because of fighting, especially if there is alcohol or drug use involved, will have significant personal consequences for the person charged.

If there are mass arrests because a planned social action devolved into chaos and violence, the goals of the action will be lost in the press that covers the violence. Police are always required to intervene if there is a threat of harm to people or property.

Have you been charged with disorderly conduct while engaged in social activism? Please get in touch so we can discuss next steps.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Please contact attorney Kirk Anderson for an initial consultation.