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Protecting the Right to Assembly and Dissent
Photo by Donna Aceto


Protecting the Right to Assembly and Dissent

New Yorkers’ right to peaceably assemble is constitutionally sacrosanct. Yet this fundamental freedom came under pernicious attack this year during public uprisings in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other unarmed Black Americans by law enforcement. With the explicit approval of state and NYPD leadership, police brazenly and repeatedly assaulted protestors with pepper spray, rubber bullets, vehicles, batons, and mass arrests, further underlining the need for mass action to force meaningful, permanent change.

Throughout the year, we worked to safeguard the right to dissent: we educated supporters about civil rights issues and protesting rights, and created opportunities for public demonstration across the state. We used both litigation and policy advocacy to pressure law enforcement and local governments to respect New Yorkers’ freedom of expression and refrain from further violating civil liberties at demonstrations.

At the same time, we achieved a number of major gains in the movement for greater police transparency and accountability. The repeal of Section 50-a of the state’s Civil Rights Law—a legislative success long pushed by the NYCLU—ends the ability of police departments to keep disciplinary records hidden from the public. As a result of the repeal, we were able to make public in a searchable database more than 35 years of Civilian Complaint Review Board records of NYPD officer misconduct. These victories have moved New York closer to the deep structural reforms necessary to fundamentally change the role of law enforcement in the state.

In response to pandemic-related executive orders that banned protest assembly while allowing other types of small nonessential gatherings, we filed suit against Governor Andrew Cuomo in May, prompting him to reverse course. When uprisings intensified, we pressured New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to de-escalate the NYPD’s aggression, and we denounced curfews put in place in Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse that would mostly target Black and Brown demonstrators for detainment. In early June, along with partners such as the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center and the Center for Constitutional Rights, we forced the mayor to end New York City’s oppressive curfew under threat of legal action and further mass protest.

In October, we partnered with the Legal Aid Society to file suit against Mayor de Blasio, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, Chief of Department Terence Monahan, the City of New York, and several individual officers for their roles in the gross mistreatment of demonstrators during one 30-day period in the spring of 2020. The unlawful cruelty on display, which included kettling and pepper-spraying large groups of protestors, is antithetical to a democratic society, and the widespread arrests put detainees in danger of contracting COVID-19 while packed in jail. These policies and practices are immoral and unconstitutional, and we will continue to watchdog authorities for their abuse.

The First Amendment right to freedom of expression in all forms must be protected at all costs. Resistance to both white supremacy and anti-Black racism is fundamental to a just society, and the voices of those most affected must be raised and encouraged without penalty. We will continue to demand not only justice for those brutalized by police but also policies that provide for greater safety at future gatherings, while making sure that law enforcement officers face true accountability for any violation of New Yorkers’ essential rights.

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The NYCLU published a comprehensive guide to participating in peaceful protest activity in New York City, with additional advisories for maintaining safety during the pandemic. Read more about our efforts to fight unlawful surveillance of protestors, monitor police engagement at demonstrations, and educate New Yorkers about their right to lawful assembly.