Democracy & Justice

What is Freedom of Assembly: Definition, Importance, Limitations

One of liberal democracy’s most coveted tenets, freedom of assembly and its protection is at the forefront of civil rights movements worldwide. However, like many others, this civil right is not always fully supported or guaranteed by our governments.

by Alex Nulman

The democratic model is meant to offer multiple instruments for the people’s voices to be heard and acknowledged, which makes freedom of assembly a necessary right in modern democracies. Although certain restrictions may be justified, to allow citizens exercise this right meaningfully the government shouldn't limit the freedom of assembly beyond what is absolutely necessary.

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What does freedom of assembly mean?

Freedom of assembly, refers to a people’s ability to organize gatherings in both public and private settings. These assemblies are often used as mechanisms for people to express their beliefs and advocate for change in the form of rallies or protests attended by thousands. It is part of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” In its most developed form, this freedom is granted to the citizenry without requiring any pre-authorization or registration for demonstrations. This specific aspect can be restricted for various reasons, such as the COVID-19 pandemic or other security concerns. Whether such restrictions are legitimate depends on all sorts of factors, for example the severity of the situation and the exact measures taken. Of course, justifying any restrictions on freedom of assembly is up to individual governments and such decisions are often scrutinized by non-government organizations.

What is permitted under freedom of assembly?

The gatherings protected under this freedom are expected to remain completely peaceful. Failure to do so can result in law enforcement taking action against citizens to maintain public order, such as arrests or nonlethal physical measures like pepper spray, or rubber bullets. These actions can occur in nations that guarantee freedom of assembly, in response to violent acts from demonstrators such as looting, arson, assault, fireworks, and rock-throwing. The vast majority of the assembly may be peacefully exercising their civil liberties so as to have their voices heard, while a small group of violent people can cause an escalation with law enforcement. Both the United Nations and the European Union, the latter in its EU Charter of Fundamental Rights specify that these freedoms allow the people to organize peacefully without unnecessary restriction.

Freedom of assembly: examples

This civil right was exercised, for example, in 2020 by millions of people throughout the world in solidarity with George Floyd and other victims of police violence, mainly in the United States. Commonly known as the George Floyd Protests or Black Lives Matter Protests, the response to the murder of Floyd by police caused international outrage. People used their right of assembly to advocate for institutional change against law enforcement in favor of minority communities who often experience unjustified violence at the hands of officers. Similarly, several thousands of people in Madrid, Spain protested recently against an upcoming North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit. Contrary to the Black Lives Matter Protests, which had the encouragement of millions worldwide, this assembly is an example of a much more niche objective that may not have as much noteworthy support. These activists have accused NATO, a military alliance that includes world powers such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, of threatening global peace through involvement in conflicts such as in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Both protests demonstrate how citizens rely on the right to freedom of assembly to participate in public debate and express their view on a certain issue.

Why is freedom of assembly important?

Along with other foundational tenets of liberal democracy, such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly is a method for activists to express support for an idea or movement and let decision-makers know that they should take that idea or movement seriously. Additionally, large-scale public events are a unique way for people to join together and acknowledge each other’s support. The Brookings Institution, one of the United State’s most renowned think tanks, found that these sorts of protests can be catalysts for positive social change by increasing media coverage, shifting public opinion, and influencing legislative action.

How is freedom of assembly limited and why?

However, this powerful tool is not without its limits, as many countries in the world have restrictions placed on freedom of assembly. Citizens cannot always organize freely to express their views. Some governments ban the people from speaking out against state institutions, for example. Certain countries may even restrict all public gatherings and respond with violence against assemblies. While many countries respect freedom of assembly and allow citizens to gather, there are usually confines on certain aspects of the rally or protest. For example, assemblies may be forced to register in advance, they may be restricted in the case of public health concerns (such as COVID-19), certain symbols or flags may be banned (such as Nazi references in Germany), and specific areas may be off-limits for protestors. These are just several of many reasons a government may choose to restrict a certain aspect of the freedom of assembly, which can be both justified or unjustified.

How free is freedom of assembly really?

The protection of this freedom varies greatly, even across multinational unions like NATO and the European Union. Specifically in the European Union, which consists of 27 countries, member states can have quite different interpretations of freedom of assembly. Although all states are expected to uphold the same freedoms, the bloc’s eastern countries in particular have struggled to support freedom of assembly at the standard promised by the EU. Governments wanting to tone down dissent can take advantage of a situation to restrict gatherings, such as a public health crisis (COVID-19) or claiming that protestors were somehow violating other laws. In Romania, for example, EU Courts recently found that the country had unlawfully arrested protestors for gathering without pre-authorization and “hooliganism”. Questionable restrictions and state violence against protestors are commonplace, including among liberal democracies where freedom of assembly is protected.

How can we promote peaceful freedom of assembly?

To ensure that citizens can enjoy their freedom of assembly to the highest degree possible, activism must remain peaceful. Large rallies often see the participation of multiple groups and organizations that may disagree with each other’s views. Partnering with state institutions when possible, like law enforcement, to ensure public safety should also be a priority. Especially in large cities, law enforcement can promote the people’s freedom of assembly by directing traffic or ensuring that any counter-protestors remain peaceful. It is equally important for decision-makers and officials to express their support for the people’s assemblies and assure the public that their voices are being heard. A government that is transparent about the effects of assemblies is more likely to make citizens feel that their voices are being heard, therefore increasing the chances that their gatherings remain peaceful and constructive.

Further reading:

Freedom of Assembly: What Is It, and Why Is It So Important?

What Is Freedom of Assembly and How Is the Situation in Europe?

Lithuanian Pride March Goes Ahead Despite Local Efforts To Restrict Freedom Of Assembly

Photo credits:

Norbu Gyachung//

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