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Free Speech

The right to express yourself regardless of the popularity your views is basic to a democratic society. Throughout its history, the ACLU has met challenges from officials who cite reasons old and new to restrict this right. We recognize that if one person can be silenced, all of us are at risk.

This guide covers the legal protections you have while protesting or otherwise exercising your free speech rights in public places. Although some of the legal principles are firmly established, as with many areas of law, free speech law is complex and continually developing. 

Topic Resources

Published: 
Friday, July 16, 2010
In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right to remain silent during the now-famous court case Miranda v. Arizona.  But last month the Court redefined the process of invoking one’s Miranda rights. In Berghuis v. Thompkins the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-4 split, that one must declare that she or he is invoking her or his right not to speak to police either before or during a police interrogation. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor said the majority had created a kind of paradox: “A suspect who wishes to guard his right to remain silent,” she wrote, “must, counter intuitively, speak.”
Published: 
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Recently obtained documents show that the University of Washington Police Department authorized an officer to spy on, collect information about, and participate in meetings of the UW Student Worker Coalition, without any suspicion of criminal activity. The ACLU of Washington is working with the SWC to uncover the extent of surveillance, and to encourage the University to take the steps necessary to prevent suspicionless surveillance in the future.   Read more
Published: 
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
I spent a week in Detroit attending workshops, plenaries, meeting lots of new people, and discussing ideas. This may sound like a typical conference, but the US Social Forum (USSF) is more than workshops and networking. The USSF is a movement building process where activists and advocates from across the country gather to share ideas, cultivate relationships for effective action, engage in dialogue on how to create "another world" - one that is free from racism, homophobia, sexism, and other forms of inequality and unfairness. Throughout the week, my activist spirit was rejuvenated and inspired – and the energy continues. Read more
Published: 
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
The democratizing effect of the Internet is arguably its greatest feature, resulting in a revolutionary explosion of free speech and expression. But this effect recently came under fire in Viacom v. YouTube, a case affecting the fundamental framework of how content is created, disseminated and stored on line. Thankfully, by ruling that YouTube was covered by the “safe harbor” provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a U.S. District Court might have just saved the Internet as we know it. Read more
Published: 
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Well, that settles it – government surveillance without suspicion is a costly endeavor. The case surrounding the false arrest of Phil Chinn –the Olympia activist targeted for surveillance based on his political associations – has come to a close. Unfortunately, a new ACLU report on political spying shows that coordinated efforts to target political activists for surveillance persist not only throughout Washington, but throughout the country.
News Release, Published: 
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Standing up for consumer rights, the ACLU says that individuals have the right to read books, view films, and buy other items without the government keeping tabs on what they choose to read, watch, or purchase.

Published: 
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Like publishing ideas in books or newspapers, demonstrating in the streets has been one of the fundamental outlets for speech throughout our nation’s history.  The Supreme Court has long held that speech gets maximum protection in certain kinds of public places, like parks, sidewalks, and streets.  People with soapboxes need somewhere to put them, after all. In these public places, speech may be limited only for narrow and very specific reasons.  States are allowed, for example, to prohibit demonstrators from blocking access to buildings like hospitals or fire stations.  We allow the government to make and enforce laws designed to keep those vital public services operating, even when it might limit people’s right to demonstrate in certain areas.  Courts call these “time, place, and manner restrictions,” and as long as they meet certain criteria, they’re constitutional. Read more
News Release, Published: 
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
The response of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to anti-war demonstrations on March 22, 2003, provides one more reminder of the City's need to have in place sensible crowd control policies for major events.
News Release, Published: 
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
A Q&A about walkouts, policy regarding absences, and other student political speech at public schools.
News Release, Published: 
Monday, January 11, 2010
A brief overview of teachers' free speech rights.

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