The First Amendment is one of the most important tenants of the US Constitution, which is why Americans have such strong protections when it comes to their right to protest. This also means that breaking up or otherwise disturbing a legal protest is illegal. If you don’t like what other people have to say in public, the best legal option is to use your right to free speech to spread your message, not to try to silence someone you disagree with.
Disturbing or Breaking Up a Public Assembly
Under California Penal Code section 403 (PC), anyone who “without authority of law, willfully disturbs or breaks up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character” has committed a misdemeanor. In plain English, this means it’s against the law to interrupt or break up a protest, picket, celebration or any other gathering of large people that is legally permitted under the law.
In order to be convicted of this crime, the prosecution must show that you intentionally acted to disturb the meeting, that you knew or should have known that your act would disturb the meeting and that your actions unlawfully interfered with the meeting. This is all irregardless of the messages being shared in the meeting or what you have to say.
So while throwing rocks at a group of self-identified white supremacists who are holding a rally proposing the re-implementation of slavery might be something most people might support, the constitution still protects the rights of those with offensive opinions, so silencing them is against the law. Similarly, if someone who is against the Black Lives Matter movement wanted to drown out speeches being given in a picket line outside of a police station after a black person was shot by the police, that person could not legally turn up a stereo to try to drown out the voices of those speaking.
Defenses Against 403 (PC)
There are many strong defenses against this crime. First, if you did not act intentionally, you cannot be held guilty. For example, if you tripped over a cord and unplugged a group’s sound system, making it difficult for them to spread their message over a large and loud crowd, it would not be your fault.
Secondly, the meeting itself must have been legal. So if people were illegally gathering on your property, you would have every right to break up the assembly as long as you did not break any other laws such as those of assault and battery.
Lastly, if you were using your legally protected First Amendment rights, you cannot be convicted. This can be a legal gray area and is the most difficult defense depending on your situation. If the group you silenced had a permit for a parade and you created a road block to disrupt the parade, it would be very hard to argue that your actions were protected by the First Amendment. On the other hand, if you handed out fliers disagreeing with the content of speeches being issued during an organized political assembly, this would most likely be protected free speech because the disturbance to the organization itself was minimal, even if many attendees agreed with your fliers.
Penalties for Disturbing a Public Meeting
Disturbing or breaking up a public meeting is a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than 6 months in jail and $1000 in fines.
It’s worth mentioning that many people accused of this crime can also be charged with other, similar offenses, including assault, battery or disrupting the peace. Most of these offenses are misdemeanors, punishable by no more than six months, but if someone was seriously injured or if a dangerous weapon was used, aggravated assault or battery charges may be filed, which carry a maximum penalty of up to four years in prison.
If you have been accused of disturbing a meeting or assembly, it is important you speak with a criminal defense attorney like Peter Liss as soon as possible. Please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation.