This fundamental human right is recognised by several documents, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and by most national constitutions around the world.
In democratic societies, free assembly is one of the instruments by which people can bring about social change. Perhaps the first picture that comes to your mind upon hearing the term “freedom of assembly” is some mass demonstration in the biggest square of your city, or a huge march down the biggest avenue of your capital led by a well-known civil rights activist or opposition leader. But assemblies can take a great variety of shapes.
You may exercise your freedom of assembly not only by participating in demonstrations, marches or rallies, but also by showing up, for example, at meetings held in a public park, sit-ins, walk-outs, public theatre performances or vigils.
In democratic societies, the organisers of assemblies may choose the time and place they deem to be most appropriate for expressing their views and conveying their message. There are certain impositions democratic states may legitimately put on such public events without impairing the essence of freedom of assembly. For example, it may be legitimate to ban a purposely loud demonstration in the middle of the night in a subdivision, for this may disproportionately disturb the lives of many. But it would not be legitimate to refuse a notice for a loud demonstration in front of the Parliament building during a session. It may be also legitimate to refuse a request to close all the important roads of a given city for a whole day for the purpose of a mass march, for this would prevent thousands of people from getting their children to and from school, from ambulances reaching hospitals in time, and so on. However, some proportionate inconvenience has to be tolerated by the inhabitants.
States have negative and positive obligations regarding peaceful demonstrations. The negative obligation is that the state and the police can not interfere and ban any peaceful demonstration. The positive obligation is to help and protect peaceful demonstrations, by coordinating traffic, keeping public order and protecting protesters from those wishing to disturb the demonstration.
There are demonstrations that happen that go unnoticed by the police, either because they come about spontaneously or because the demonstration was banned. It should be emphasised, however, that a lack of notice in and of itself does not give the state a free pass to use force against peaceful demonstrators. If a demonstration is considered to be unlawful – because of a lack of notice – that does not mean that the police are automatically entitled to intervene. If a demonstration is peaceful, there is no justification to interfere.
A benefit to society
States may not limit freedom of assembly just because the organisers want to express ideas that are not popular, or because those in power think that the ideas at hand would go against the interests of society in the long run. Of course, when public safety is endangered, states may legitimately break up a demonstration. When, for example, a demonstration that started peacefully becomes violent, such as when people set cars on fire or break into shops, the police may legitimately use force to break up the crowd, thereby protecting the property and physical well being of other citizens. But the force the state employs in such cases should never exceed the minimal force needed to restore normalcy.