Freedom of Assembly, Association and Rights to Petition the Government

Authored By: Carl Vinson Institute
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Freedoms of Assembly and Association and Rights to Petition the Government

This document tells you the following:

  • What is the freedom of assembly?
  • What is the freedom of association?
  • What is the right to petition the government?

Freedom of Assembly

Another right given to Americans is the right to assemble. However, the courts have generally said that governments may set reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner in which people gather. They can set these restrictions to prevent a danger to or disruption of government activity.

Any law restricting a group's freedom to assemble must be very clear and have clear guidelines that a state, police, or other enforcement agency can follow. Governments may require permits for activities such as those in situation 17. However, the procedures for obtaining a permit must be clear and fairly applied. A permit cannot be denied because a group or its cause is disliked.

Furthermore, such restrictions must be reasonable.

Freedom of Association

Closely related to freedom of speech and assembly is freedom of association. This freedom is the right of individuals to associate with others for political, social, or economic reasons.

In addition to protecting the right to associate with whomever you want, the First Amendment also protects the right of private individuals not to associate with others. For example, private clubs or organizations may exclude individuals from membership. The government, though, does not have the right to exclude people from government participation or employment for just any reason. For example, a public school cannot admit students based solely on their race or national origin, except in very rare instances.

There are some limitations on the rights of individuals to associate. The right to associate does not extend to gathering for illegal or criminal purposes. Sometimes people form associations to object to laws or government policies. In those cases, the right to associate is especially important. As a matter of fact, the framers of the U.S. Constitution had two purposes in mind when they wrote the document: (1) to establish a government and (2) to protect the people from oppression by that government. The freedoms in the Bill of Rights permit people to act to change our society without the need for violence. Without these freedoms, the Civil Rights movement, for example, might never have occurred.

During the Civil Rights movement, people protested existing laws by disobeying them. This form of protest is called civil disobedience. A person does not have the right to avoid punishment for civil disobedience. However, the government may never prevent a group of persons from associating to object to a civil law.

Many people fear that identifying the members of a group will lead to their harassment. However, courts have supported such disclosure if the government can show a compelling interest in identifying the group members. A compelling interest might be to prevent illegal activity.

Right of Petition

The right of petition to the government is expressly mentioned in the First Amendment. This right guarantees that individuals may seek access to all agencies of government, not just their elected representatives. Thus, you can call the mayor to complain about garbage collection, or you and other students can sign a letter asking the school principal to have several basketball team rallies. This right means that you can, with others, ask a court to halt the polluting of a river.

The Georgia Constitution also guarantees the right to assemble and petition:

The people have the right to assemble peaceably for their common good and to apply by petition or remonstrance to those vested with the powers of government for redress of grievances. [Art. 1, sec. 1, para. 9.]

* Excerpted from An Introduction to Law in Georgia, Third Edition, published by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, 1998 (updated 2001). The Vinson Institute is not responsible for errors in the online text. Content is for information only; in no way should the information in the book be considered legal advice to anyone on any matter for which there are legal implications. Any such matter should be specifically addressed with an attorney. The book is available for purchase ator by contacting the Publications Program, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 201 M. Milledge Avenue, Athens, GA 30602; telephone 706-542-6377; fax 706-542-6239.

Last Review and Update: Jul 30, 2004