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section heading icon     overview

This page considers historical and contemporary rights of assembly and public protest.

It covers -

  • introduction - what are rights of assembly and free association, why are they significant, recognition in international and national law
  • public order versus assembly? - the interaction of free association with public order and safety in principle and practice
  • evolution - changing conceptualisation of the rights and administration in the UK, France, US, Russia and other nations
  • industrial action - freedom of association and rights of assembly as a foundation of workers' movements
  • protests and solidarity - street marches, demonstrations and other public gatherings
  • assembly and digital surveillance - rights of assembly in the age of closed circuit television, global broadcasting, facial recognition and other technologies

The note supplements discussion of privacy, politics, human rights, censorship and tools such as travel documents and RFIDs.

section marker icon     introduction

What are rights of assembly? Why are they significant? How do they relate to other rights? And what are the international frameworks?

In essence, rights of assembly encompass freedoms for individuals to

  • gather and address grievances or concerns to rulers (sometimes characterised as the right of petition)
  • come together in public or private spaces, for example in a town square or street to exchange views or engage in entertainment (part of a right of free association that encompasses contact in person and through mechanisms such as correspondence)
  • assemble in public spaces as an embodiment of the community, with for example a gathering outside a palace or a march through city streets
  • assemble in workplaces or other locations to establish and maintain industrial organisations, for example to discuss and vote on industrial union strategies.

They are important for several reasons, as -

  • universal and innate human rights underpinning civil society and respect for the individual, consistent with for example views of privacy as essentially the right to be left alone
  • a primary mode for expressing dissatisfaction with the operation of the state, in particular with government policy
  • a mechanism for demonstrating (and fostering) opposition to the activity or beliefs of organisations and other social groupings
  • a vehicle for exchanging information and enabling negotiation between labour and employees.

They are accordingly significant as 'markers' of liberal democratic societies, with an expectation that rights of assembly and free association are not antithetical to public order or to the exercise of other rights/freedoms.

They have been recognised in a range of global, regional and local frameworks. Article 21 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights (ICCPR) for example indicates that

The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others

Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) similarly provides that

everyone has the right to peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others.

Section 15 of the Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT) similarly specifies that

1) Everyone has the right of freedom of assembly
(2) Everyone has the right of freedom of association

Recognition in national legislation and practice reflects the history and political culture of individual countries, with differing emphases on public order, implicit protection and articulation of the rights in constitutions.

Some nations - such as Canada, Japan, Eire, Italy, South Africa and the US - have a constitutional guarantee of rights of assembly. Article 21 of Japan's Constitution, based on the US model, for example specifies that "Freedom of assembly and association, and all other forms of expression are guaranteed."

Other nations - such as the UK, Australia and France - rely on the absence of comprehensive formal restrictions rather than explicit protection through an over-arching constitution.

Freedom of assembly is a qualified right, predicated on the assembly being peaceful (with some constitutions accordingly restricting the right to assembly without arms). It is a right that should apply equally across society. As discussed below, historically the strengthening of civil society has seen an extension of the right from elites to all adults and acceptance that rights of assembly are not inherently conditional on approval of a majority or particular minorities within the community.

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version of January 2006
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