The right to protest is one of the oldest and most-respected rights in the American democratic system. The right of citizens to peacefully protest is protected by our First Amendment rights to free speech. Of course, there are limits to even the most important rights, and the right to protest doesn't permit violence or the incitement to violence.
Protests that turn violent are called "riots" and, First Amendment rights aside, there are laws against rioting and inciting others to riot that you should know before taking to the streets. The following article looks at federal prohibitions against rioting and inciting to riot.
State and Federal Jurisdiction
Most states have their own laws relating to rioting (whether it's participating in a riot or inciting to riot). A person who has been charged and convicted or acquitted under state law cannot be prosecuted for the same acts under federal laws. State laws apply to anyone present in the state for the commission of the criminal act. Federal laws are somewhat more limited.
Federal jurisdiction in rioting cases arises when the rioter engaged in the prohibited act and traveled between states or countries to do so, or used interstate or foreign commerce such as mail, telephone, radio, or television to communicate or broadcast prior to their overt acts. Activities involving federal lands are considered to be per-se interstate matters.
Per federal code, it's a crime when an individual "travels in interstate or foreign commerce or uses any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including, but not limited to, the mail, telegraph, telephone, radio, or television, with intent" [to]:
Rioting, Inciting to Riot, and Related Offenses
A riot is a type of civil disorder that results in a public disturbance against authority, property, or people. Riots typically involve violence or the destruction of property, though the term is also used in connection with "unlawful assembly." Although citizens have the right to free speech and assembly found in the First Amendment to the Constitution, cities can regulate the right to demonstrate by requiring permits or limiting demonstrations to a designated area.
As such, demonstrations that lack the proper permits, or run outside of pre-designated areas may be deemed a riot, or the related offense of unlawful assembly, which typically involves peaceful but unpermitted demonstrations.
Apart from the charge of rioting, which covers the destructive or disruptive acts themselves, there are a number of associated crimes that may also be charged. Incitement to riot is when a person encourages others to commit a breach of the peace without necessarily acting themselves. This may involve statements, signs, or conduct intended to lead others to riot.
Conspiracy to riot involves planning acts that, if undertaken, would result in a breach of the peace. However, conspiracy convictions usually require the defendant to have undertaken an overt act in furtherance of their plan.
Rioting and Inciting to Riot: Punishments and Protections
The federal crime of rioting is punishable by fines, imprisonment for up to five years, or both. It should also be noted that the law against rioting specifically provides that it is not intended to be used to prevent travel or the use of facilities to pursue the legitimate objectives of organized labor through orderly and lawful means.
Get Legal Help With Your Rioting or Inciting to Riot Charges
If you have been charged with rioting, inciting to riot, or a related charge under federal jurisdiction you'll need professional assistance with your defense. Federal criminal charges carry serious penalties and your defense should be carefully planned. Contact a local criminal defense attorney today and learn how they can help.