Gun Violence Protests: How Should Your City Respond?

In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, several student-led gun violence protests/walkouts have been announced. What if this happens in your city? What if students march to city hall, as they already have in some Minnesota cities?

Consider working proactively with your local schools and the city attorney to craft a planned response that is respectful of First Amendment rights and focuses on safety for all involved.

Planned protests
Three gun violence protests have been announced. A 17-minute “National School Walkout” is planned for March 14 at 10 a.m. Ten days later, on March 24, “March for Our Lives” is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. at the Minnesota state Capitol (as well as in Washington, D.C., and other locations throughout the country).

A third event, “The National High School Walk-Out for Anti-Gun Violence,” is scheduled for April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. Students are being called on to wear orange and walk out of school.

First Amendment rights
If this happens in your city, it’s important to remember that in America, people—including students—have a right or freedom to speak. That speech includes “expressive conduct” such as distributing literature, holding up banners, and marching in the street. Cities, as local government, must not unconstitutionally limit that right to speak.

First Amendment rights to protest are especially strong in city streets, sidewalks, and in city parks. As public forums, people may typically speak, hand out literature, or carry signs on streets, sidewalks, and in parks to express their opinions loudly.

In White Bear Lake, Mayor Jo Emerson and a few councilmembers recently invited peaceful (and loud) student protestors into city hall. The city officials listened to the students and let them express their views. This was a remarkable way to honor student protester’s First Amendment rights and, at the same time, defuse anger and keep everyone involved safe.

Government interests
City staff and elected officials, acting as part of government, must allow people (including students) to speak or protest. The challenge for cities is to balance First Amendment rights to protest with the city’s interest to protect the speaker, law enforcement officials, and those who may not wish to hear certain views expressed in their city.

Remember, under current criminal law, cities may prosecute demonstrators who damage public property or public safety vehicles, or harm a third party.

Beware the heckler’s veto
Other residents in a city may find a walkout or protest unpopular, triggering counter protests. City officials and city police departments cannot remove the unpopular group to appease the counter protesters.

A person’s right to speak cannot be limited because it stirs people to anger, invites public outcry, or causes turmoil. To do so allows those heckling a speaker to quash their speech by getting the city to intervene. This is known as the heckler’s veto.

LMC memo offers guidance
The League recently published a memo to help your city understand how to respond to walkouts and protests. Most importantly, allow protestors to express their views loudly, but peacefully, and do not allow counter protestors to shut down a protest.

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