When does protest behavior become illegal?


In the wake of violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia and an attack with a car that left one woman dead, many people are asking, where is the line between freedom of expression and a hate crime?

Legal experts say protests or similar actions become a hate crime when violence is involved. 

“The line is crossed obviously where freedom of expression ends–the First Amendment rights, freedom of assembly–and where somebody takes action or incites that action be taken,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Randolph J. Bernard. 

This means people are free to openly express their beliefs, but once they commit a violent act or encourage others to do so, they have committed a crime. 

In the Charlottesville case, the accused driver of the car was charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, and one count of hit-and-run. There is the possibility of terrorism charges as well. 

With the current climate in the United States, some legal experts think it is likely we will see increased focus on these laws.

“For instance, ‘dangerous weapon’ hasn’t necessarily been defined, but I think in light of what we’ve seen, a vehicle, an automobile may be and is, in my opinion, a dangerous weapon,” said Bernard. 

If you decide to go out and protest yourself, remaining peaceful is key to obeying the law.

“Obviously when emotions run high, that’s when problems occur, but…that’s the beauty of this country. We have the right, you have the right, to protest peacefully and assemble peacefully,” said Bernard.

There are also laws in place that prevent people from using intimidation against different groups based on things like race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. 

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