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The First Amendment protects your right to express your views, even if they’re unpopular. This guide explains some of the ways the government can lawfully limit this right, while also giving you advice for what to do if the government oversteps its authority.


Where Can I Demonstrate: Public Property

  • Getting a permit isn’t always required to protest on public land but is always a good idea. Obtaining one reduces the risk of conflict of the police and allows you to reserve your spot.
  • Demonstrations on D.C. Land:
    • D.C. land includes Metro Stations and D.C. streets and sidewalks.
    • You DO NOT need to notify the District IF: the protest won’t block pedestrians from using sidewalks/crosswalks, or attendance will be under 50 and the protest won’t be on a D.C. street, or the protest breaks out spontaneously. (Still, giving notice and getting approval is a good idea.)
    • If these conditions do not apply: You must inform the D.C. government of the demonstration by using its notification procedures (akin to permitting procedures in other cities), which are available here.
    • Demonstrating at residences: It is illegal for a group of three or more people to target a specific residence for demonstration if the protest occurs between 10 pm and 7 am and the demonstrators either wear masks or fail to provide MPD notification of the time and place of the demonstration.
  • Demonstrations on Federal Land:
    • Federal land includes all green space downtown (even small parks), the National Mall, federal buildings/monuments (and nearby sidewalks), and Rock Creek Park.
    • You generally need a permit to demonstrate on federal land if the demonstration will have 25 or more participants. There are a few exceptions to this rule:
      • Up to 500 people allowed without permit at Franklin Park at 13th & K St NW, or McPherson Square at 15th & K St NW
      • Up to 100 people allowed on the green space at 18th & H St NW
      • Up to 1000 people allowed on green area next to Rock Creek at 23rd & P St NW
    • The application form and instructions for permits from the United States Park Police are here. Contact the Park Police for more information at (202) 245-4715 (Mon-Fri 8-4)
    • Instructions for demonstrations on the United States Capitol grounds are available here and you can obtain more information by calling (202) 224-8891.

Where Can I Demonstrate: Private Property

You can only demonstrate on private property with the consent of the property owner. If the owner consents, you must follow the owner’s rules for the demonstration. As long as you do, the police generally can’t stop you from speaking on private property.

How Can I Demonstrate: Interacting with the Public

Passing out pamphlets, asking signatures on a petition, picketing and requesting donations, is all legal and doesn’t require a permit. However, you cannot block entrances to buildings or physically or maliciously detain passers-by. A permit may be required to set up tables or other physical structures

How Can I Demonstrate: Recording the Police

  • You can lawfully take photos or videos of police officers performing their duties in public.
  • Police can lawfully ask you to step back if they believe you’re recording is interfering with their performance of their duties. But they can’t stop you from recording altogether. The Metropolitan Police Department adopted this rule in this policy, and the ACLU believes the same rule applies to federal law enforcement under the Constitution.
  • If you decide to record a police interaction, think about the consequences for bystanders who might be in the recording. For instance, if you capture someone committing a crime, your video could be evidence against that person in a criminal trial. For this reason, we recommend focusing your recording on officers engaging in misconduct and thinking about the consequences for bystanders before uploading videos or pictures online.

Planning for Police Interactions: Identifying Different Police Departments

MPD Badge

Metro Transit Police

metro transit police badge


All green space downtown (even small parks), the National Mall, federal buildings/monuments (and nearby sidewalks), and Rock Creek Park are federal land, policed mainly by:

Park Police

park police badge

Federal Protective Service

federal protective service badge

Capitol Police (near U.S. Capital/Union Station)

capitol police badge

Secret Service (uniformed)

secret service badge

Planning for Police Interactions: What Do I Do If I’m Stopped

For more information on police stops, see our guide on stop and frisk, available here. And, if you have concerns about being stopped as an immigrant, review the special advice provided here.

Planning for Possible Police Interactions: Steps To Take before Demonstrating

  • Risking arrest? Carry $100 cash and 3 days’ worth of any essential medication, in its original bottle. Make emergency childcare plans if you have children. Put a password on your phone to protect against searches. Memorize (or write on your arm) numbers for your family, your lawyer, and jail support.
  • Not a U.S. citizen? Know your immigration number. (“A” number) if you have one. Talk to a lawyer about the risks of arrest before participating, especially if you are undocumented. For additional guidance:
  • Undocumented, under court supervision, or have a record? Think hard and talk to a lawyer about the risks of arrest. Consequences can be worse for you than most people.
  • A person with a disability, special medical needs, or limited English? Carry a card or wear a bracelet to explain your situation should the need arise.
  • Gender non-conforming? MPD respects gender designations on driver’s licenses so have an accurate license if possible.

Planning for Police Interactions: What Happens if I’m Arrested? – Booking Procedures

  • Booking may happen at the local precinct, Park Police headquarters, the Capitol, or a detention facility in Alexandria, Va.
  • At booking you will either:
    • Be cited (given a court date) and released; or
    • Allowed to “post and forfeit”: If this occurs, you will have to pay to have case dropped; the arrest will remain on your record but there will be no conviction. The amount of the fee depends on charge but usually is between $25 and $100 for demonstration- related offenses; or
    • Detained at the police station and later transferred to Central Cell Block, 300 Indiana Ave NW or a facility in Alexandria, until your court hearing, where you will appear by phone or video.
  • Signing papers. Read all papers fully. Ask for an interpreter if you need one. Don’t write or sign a confession or waiver of rights – or sign anything you don’t understand. If you are given a “waiver” card, check the box that you will not answer questions without a lawyer.
  • Phone calls. You can ask for one, and the police often allow one, but they may refuse. Be aware that calls to people other than your attorney may be recorded. You have the right to be brought before a judge promptly, which may mean the next business day.
  • Charging. Prosecutors decide, during business hours, either to charge you or “no-paper” the case (let you go).
  • Pretrial services interview. If the prosecutors charge you, D.C. Pretrial Services Agency or Court Social Services will interview you. The interview is voluntary but not confidential. Do not talk about the incident and arrest, or any unlawful activity. If you are undocumented, do not answer questions about your immigration status or country of origin. The judge may use the interview to decide whether or not to release you.

Planning for Police Interactions: What Happens if I’m Arrested? – Presentment/Arraignment

  • If the prosecutors charge you, you will go to presentment/arraignment, where you will learn the charges against you, and whether you’ll be released pending your next court date. Presentment/Arraignment is not trial.
  • A lawyer will be there to help you. You will be charged with a crime, and may (depending on your income) be given a lawyer to help going forward.
  • If you have immigration concerns, be sure to alert your lawyer during a confidential phone call about those concerns.
  • The judge decides whether to release you, and you will have a date set for your next hearing. If you are undocumented or deportable, it is possible that you will be transferred into ICE custody after release.
  • The government may seek an order that you stay away from where you were arrested. If you want to return there to protest or for another reason, tell your lawyer why and ask your lawyer to object.
  • Timing: You’ll likely be presented/arraigned the day after arrest (same day if arrested early). Saturday arrestees must wait until Monday. Presentment/Arraignment occurs at Superior Court, 500 Indiana Ave NW, Courtroom C-10 starting at 1 pm. For juveniles, court begins at 11 am or after. No arraignments on Sundays.

Planning for Police Interactions: Challenging Misconduct

Police misconduct can’t be challenged on the street but can be challenges later, through legal and community advocacy. Try to record the incident on your phone or write down everything you can: badge and patrol car numbers, which agency the officers were from, and contact information for witnesses. Take photos of any injuries (but seek medical attention first.). Keep all official paperwork and receipts for medical treatment. Then file a written complaint with the agency’s internal affairs division or the Office of Police Complaints. Contact an attorney for additional help. To learn more about seeking the ACLU-DC’s help to respond to violations of your rights, visit

Useful Government Numbers and Addresses

To find out if someone has been arrested by MPD (Federal authorities won’t tell you whether someone has been arrested.) call (202) 727-4383.

To learn the time/room number of someone’s arraignment call Pretrial Services at (202) 585-7030 ext. 2 or PDS at (202) 824-2463 (available through January 31, 2021).

  • MPD Information, 300 Indiana Ave NW, (202) 727-9099
  • Central Cell Block, 300 Indiana Ave NW, (202) 727-4222
  • Park Police D-1, 960 Ohio Dr SW, (202) 426-6710
  • Park Police D-5, 1901 Anacostia Dr SE, (202) 610-8600
  • Capitol Police, 119 D St NE, (202) 224-1677
  • For each precinct’s number, visit: