Right to Assemble

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Amendments to Constitution
Civil Rights
The right to assemble is closely related to the formation and growth of the philanthropic sector because it answers the need to come together, share common beliefs, and act upon those beliefs (concepts that have been so essential to this sector's creation). Groups form for many purposes, from reform movements (the Civil War, women's suffrage, the struggle for civil rights), to charitable organizations that meet specific needs (the American Red Cross), to churches, mosques and synagogues.


The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states "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" (Bloom p. 81).

The right of a citizen to peacefully 1) parade and gather or 2) demonstrate support or opposition of public policy or 3) express one's views, is guaranteed by the freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble.

Historic Roots

The First Amendment states that Congress can make no law hindering the right of the people to peaceably assemble. Before the Bill of Rights, the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress declared on October 14, 1774:

The inhabitants of the English colonies in North-America, by the immutable laws of nature, the principals of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following rights: They have a right peaceably to assemble, consider their grievances, and petition the king: and that all prosecutions, prohibitory proclamations, and commitments for the same are illegal (First Amendment Cyber-Tribune).

In 1776, Pennsylvania's declaration of rights guaranteed peaceable assembly, being the first state to recognize this right. Interestingly, in 1670, William Penn, the founder of the colony, was arrested on Gracechurch Street, London, for giving a sermon to a group of Quakers in the street in front of his church. London officials had locked the hall and forbidden Penn "to preach in any building" so he took his sermon to the streets. "He was charged with unlawful, tumultuous assembly that disturbed the king's peace. The judge in the case tried to force the jury to return a verdict of guilty for William Penn… This was a bitter memory for those who believed in religious freedom and the right for people to assemble peacefully" (FACT). Later declarations of rights gave citizens of other states the right to peaceful assembly - North Carolina (1776), Massachusetts (1790), and New Hampshire (1784).

On September 25, 1789, the House and Senate agreed on twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution and submitted them to the states for ratification. Then, on November 21, 1798, North Carolina, with a proposed Bill of Rights by Congress, ratified the original Constitution by a 194-77 vote. Virginia ratified the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791, making it part of the Constitution.


Originally, the right to assemble was considered less important than the right to petition. Yet, over the years, the courts have interpreted the First Amendment and the right to peaceful assembly as significant in its importance to society today. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that the First Amendment protects the right to conduct a peaceful public assembly.  The right to assemble is not, however, absolute.  Government officials cannot simply prohibit a public assembly, but the government can impose restrictions on the time, place, and manner of peaceful assembly, provided that constitutional safeguards are met.  Time, place, and manner restrictions are permissible so long as they are “justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, . . . are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and . . . leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information” (United States Library of Congress, 2017).

Overall, the Right to Assemble is of significant importance to U.S. society as it gives all citizens the freedom to have a voice and freely associate with one another in public under a common cause or shared value.

Listed below are some monumental United States Supreme Court decisions related to the Right to Peaceful Assembly (FACT):

United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876). The Supreme Court said that the "right of the people peaceably to assemble for the purpose of petitioning Congress for a redress of grievances, or for anything else connected with the powers and duties of the national government, is an attribute of national citizenship, and as such, under the protection of, and guaranteed by, the United States." The high court applied the liberty only to any federal government's encroachment.

De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S 353 (1937). The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the right to peaceably assemble "for lawful discussion, however unpopular the sponsorship, cannot be made a crime." The decision applied the First Amendment right of peaceful assembly to the states through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Hague v. C.I.O., 307 U.S. 496 (1939). The Supreme Court ruled that peaceful demonstrators may not be prosecuted for "disorderly conduct." This case also secured streets and sidewalks as public forums.

Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88 (1940) The Supreme Court held that orderly union picketing that informs the public of issues is protected by the constitutional freedom of speech of the press and the right of peaceable assembly and cannot be prosecuted under state loitering and picketing laws.

Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229 (1963). In an 8-to-1 decision, the Suprmee Court overturned the breach of peace convictions of 180 black students who had peacefully marched to the state capitol to protest discrimination. The police stopped the demonstration and arrested the students because they were afraid that the 200-300 people who gathered to watch the demonstration might cause a riot. The court held the state law unconstitutionally over-broad because it penalized the exercise of free speech, peaceable assembly, and the right of petition for a redress of grievances. A disorderly crowd, or the fear of one, cannot be used to stop a peaceful demonstration or cancel the right of peaceable assembly.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

One can argue that the formation and growth of the philanthropic sector is one of the many results of the First Amendment and the Right to Assemble. It is the need to assemble, to come together and share common beliefs and act upon those beliefs that has helped to create the philanthropic sector. A group or movement with a shared identified need or value may form a nonprofit organization, through which they can work towards achieving goals which meet their shared needs.  Thus, through the right to assemble, many nonprofit organizations form to address the shared need.  Some examples of movements/nonprofits which may have formed as a result of citizens practicing their right to assemble include movements such as Women’s Suffrage, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the American Red Cross, and religious groups.

The right to peaceable assembly provides the opportunity for all citizens, whether they are employed by the federal or state government, by private businesses, or by nonprofit organizations, to participate in America's political life and in the electoral process.

Here we will explore an extraordinary example of the power of peaceful assembly that took place on April 22nd, 2017 in Washington D.C.  Thousands of scientists and their supporters, feeling increasingly threatened by the policies of the Trump administration, gathered under rainy skies for what they called the March for Science, abandoning a tradition of keeping the sciences out of politics and calling on the public to stand up for scientific enterprise (St. Fleur 2017).

Its organizers were motivated by President Trump, who disparaged climate change as a hoax, cast suspicions on the safety of vaccines, and made various other claims regarding numerous areas of science (St. Fleur 2017).

Although the protestors in the Science March may not have changed politician's minds, they gained the public eye and garnered support from around the United States by using their Right to Assemble. Thus, by using one’s First Amendment right, many individuals, groups, and organizations can assemble as a way to show support for or to dispute an idea.

Key Related Ideas

  • Civil Rights are defined as "the nonpolitical rights of a citizen; especially those guaranteed to U.S. citizens by the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution and by acts of Congress" (Merriam-Webster Online). The 13th amendment of the Constitution abolished slavery in the U.S., and the 14th amendment insured African Americans of their legal citizenship and equal protection under the law (Learning to Give, The Civil Rights Movement, Roy, 2004).
  • The Civil Rights Movement was dedicated to activism for equal rights and treatment of African Americans in the United States. People of the movement rallied for social, legal, political, and cultural changes to prohibit discrimination and end segregation (Learning to Give, The Civil Rights Movement, Roy, 2004).
  • Individual Rights and Community Responsibilities:

Individual Rights refer to the liberties of each individual to pursue life and goals without interference from other individuals or the government. Examples of individual rights include the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as stated in the United States Declaration of Independence (Learning to Give, Individual Rights and Community Responsibilities, Nanzer, 2003).

Community responsibilities are an individual's duties or obligations to the community and include cooperation, respect, and participation. The concept goes beyond thinking and acting as individuals to common beliefs about shared interests and life (Learning to Give, Individual Rights and Community Responsibilities, Nanzer, 2003).

  • Labor Rights and Agreements: There is no single definition or definitive list of workers' rights. The International Labor Organization (ILO) identifies what it calls "fundamental principles and rights at work" that all ILO Members have an obligation to respect and promote, which are: the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor; the effective abolition of child labor; and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation (United States Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, 2017).
  • A Social Movement consists of a number of people organized and coordinated to achieve some task or a collection of goals, and often the participants are interested in bringing about social change. Compared to other forms of collective behavior, social movements have a high degree of organization and are of longer duration (Learning to Give, Social Movement, Bostic, 2003).


Important People Related to the Right to Assemble

  • Susan B. Anthony was a leader who is best remembered for her advocacy for women's voting rights and as a founder of the Suffrage movement (Learning to Give, Susan B. Anthony, Haight, 2002).
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. came of age during a time when Jim Crow laws reigned supreme, a time when “separate but equal” was the accepted doctrine (Cornell University Law), a time when things were always separate but never equal for blacks and whites.  This was a time when blacks were not permitted to use the same stores as whites, to stay in the same hotels, or to attend the same schools as whites.  Oppression was practiced throughout America.  It was during this time that the winds of change started to blow.  King, one of many Civil Rights leaders in the United States, rose to prominence due to his exceptional leadership and oratory skills.  It is true that the Civil Rights Movement would have occurred with or without Martin Luther King, Jr., but it is also true that without King, the Civil Rights Movement would not have had the same impact on society (Learning to Give, Martin Luther King, Jr., VanLieu, 2004).
  • Betty Friedan launched the twentieth-century American women's movement in 1963 with her book the Feminine Mystique. In it, she sheds light on the isolation and dissatisfaction many middle-class women felt in their roles as housewives. Friedan wanted to work with men to redefine traditional gender roles. Her writings prompted much controversy and debate and inspired many women to take an active role in demanding equality. She is often cited as the founder of the "second wave" of the women's movement, providing women with the resources to demand and seek change (Learning to Give, Betty Friedan, Tuttle, 2003).

Important Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) The vision of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is to ensure a society in which all individuals have equal rights without discrimination based on race (NAACP, Vision Statement, 2017).
  • AFL-CIO The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) works tirelessly to improve the lives of working people. They strive to ensure all working people are treated fairly, with decent paychecks and benefits, safe jobs, dignity, and equal opportunities. They help people acquire valuable skills and job-readiness for the 21st century economy, and operate the largest training network outside the U.S. military (The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, 2017).
  • The National Organization for Women Foundation (“NOW Foundation”) is a 501(c) (3) organization devoted to achieving full equality for women through education and litigation.  The Foundation focuses on a broad range of women’s rights issues, including economic justice, pay equity, racial discrimination, women’s health and body image, women with disabilities, reproductive rights and justice, family law, marriage and family formation rights of same-sex couples, representation of women in the media, and global feminist issues (National Organization for Women, 2017).


Reflection Question - How does the Right to Assemble and the First Amendment relate to the philanthropic sector?


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  • St. Fleur, Nicholas, “Scientists, Feeling Under Siege, March Against Trump Policies.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/22/science/march-for-science.html
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  • United States Library of Congress. Right to Peaceful Assembly: United States. [online] Accessed 28 October 2017. https://www.loc.gov/law/help/peaceful-assembly/us.php


This paper was developed by a graduate student pursuing a M.A. in Philanthropic Studies at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning to Give and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.