How to protest NSA surveillance this July Fourth

This July 4, there will be protests in dozens of cities standing in support of the Fourth Amendment and against unconstitutional NSA spying. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee is proud to support the Restore the Fourth movement, and played an especially active role in building a coalition to support the rally in McPherson Square in Washington, DC.

If you haven’t already, find a Restore the Fourth rally in your area.

This is a guide we put together about planning and executing successful protests. Please feel free to cross-post this anywhere you’d like.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. If you have more ideas or suggestions, email them to us at We’ll keep updating our list.

Tips and Considerations for Holding a High-Impact, Engaging Protest

Getting People There

  • Purpose Have a conversation with key organizers in your community about what you hope to achieve with your event.  Are you simply trying to raise awareness in the community, or do you want to put pressure on lawmakers or other government officials?  Clarifying your purpose early on will help both in communicating with the media and in choosing the best location for your event.  For example, if one of your goals is to elicit a response from a local official in favor of privacy rights, you may want to do some research into whether there is a local public 4th of July event that he or she will be attending, and hold your protest nearby.  Or, you may want to protest outside his or her office, take pictures, and follow up with a letter or petition directly explaining your concerns. If you are trying to reach out to the community more broadly, then you can choose your location based on high visibility to roadside or pedestrian traffic, and prepare informational flyers to share.
  • Promote! Expend as much energy as you can in promoting your event in the days leading up to your protest. Promote your protest on Twitter and on Facebook and every other social media outlet you can. Consider making flyers and distributing them to coffee shops and college campuses. Contact like-minded local organizations and ask them to participate and/or help promote the event. Post a notice about your event in the Community section of Craigslist (consider “activities,” “events,” “politics,” and “general”). If there is a local paper that lists community events, try to have your event listed. Call everyone you know and ask them to call others and bring friends. Mass texting is helpful too, the day before and the day of. Reminding people really helps turnout.
    • Groups you can reach out to invite their members:
          • Local tech meetups, local linux groups, etc.
          • Local ACLU chapters
          • Local political groups like immigration, environmental, libertarian
          • Online local forums and blogs
  • Press outreach Send a press advisory to local publications a day or more before your event.  You can find a simple guide to writing a press advisory here. Include contact information for someone who can do interviews as well as details about the time and location of your protest.  Send it to all the local publications a day or more before your protest. Follow up directly with reporters you think might be particularly interested in coming out to your event. See Restore The Fourth’s resources, which includes a media relations guide. You can also try sending out a press release soon after your event, either that evening or the following morning.  If you attach links to photos and videos, and a couple of quotes from important spokespeople, some reporters may choose to write about your event even if they couldn’t be there in-person.  Note that sometimes publications will republish a press release in its entirety.

At the Protest

  • A picture is worth a thousand words Take tons of pictures of your rally from a variety of angles and distances. We can’t emphasize enough how important quality photographs are. If you can, try to group everyone together with signs and get a big group photo.

Remember, a protest generally has three levels of impact:

  1. Through individuals who physically interact with the protest (by seeing it or participating in it),
  2. Though media coverage, when people read or learn of the project through the news, and
  3. Through documentation – like photographs, videos, and blog posts published online describing the protest.

This third method will last a long time and potentially reach the most people – including, sometimes, lawmakers. So take lots and lots of awesome photos (and video, if you can) and post them online on multiple sites. If you have friends who are professional photographers, ask them to come and photograph the event for you.

  • Signs Visuals – signs, banners, t-shirts and other messages – are the best way to keep your protest “on message.”  Keep the message short, simple, and powerful: for example: “We Stand Behind the Fourth Amendment” or “NSA Spying is Unconstitutional” or “Unplug Big Brother.”  You might want to hold a sign-making or banner-making party with supplies (poster board, markers, etc) a few days before the scheduled protest.
    • Consider getting individuals to hold up four fingers to show their support of the Fourth Amendment.
    • You could plan to have people bring whistles for whistleblowers
  • Speeches Think about having a variety of speakers to address different aspects of your cause – but make sure they are all actually talking about the issue you are protesting! For example, Constitutional lawyers, students, engineers, and communities that have been targeted by surveillance in the past can each talk about different aspects of surveillance. Keep speeches very short and direct. If you can get a few celebrities, that can really help boost the impact.  It may be useful to schedule speakers beforehand and stick to a firm schedule, rather than allow an “open mic” system that allows anyone and everyone to speak.
  • Music A little music – a band, a DJ, or a guitarist – is a great way to keep people engaged while you’re setting up or in between speeches. It’s not a necessity, but it can keep the energy high for a slightly longer protest or event. (To get a sense of what a big difference music can make, check out this video of a Bradley Manning protest at an Obama campaign office in San Francisco featuring the Brass Liberation Orchestra.)
  • Post-event media After the event, in addition to posting photos and videos, blog and tweet about the event and follow up with the press!

Practical Concerns

  • Water and Sunscreen You can’t protest unconstitutional surveillance if you’re thirsty or burning in the sun. If you’re attending a protest, bring water and, if it’s sunny and you might burn, bring sunscreen. If you are hosting the protest, bring lots and lots of extra water bottles to share.
  • Sound systems In a pinch, you can stop by an electronics store and buy a decent megaphone (also known as a bullhorn) for under $100. Remember to buy batteries and at least one spare set of batteries – megaphones run through batteries fast. If you have a little time to prepare your event, you might buy a well-reviewed megaphone online. Ideally, you can borrow a sound system from a local organization that hosts rallies. Contact groups that have done protests in your area before and ask if they have a sound system you can borrow for your event. Be persistent and be persuasive, and promise to take good care of the equipment and return it unharmed.  If you don’t know any groups in your area, just do an Internet search for “[[your city]] activist” (i.e. “San Diego activist” or “Providence activist”) and see if any directories of local activism groups show up. Then start contacting them.
  • Accessibility Consider whether your protest is an event that will be possible for individuals with physical disabilities to attend. If not, is there a way you can adjust plans to accommodate people with different levels of mobility? For example, if you are planning a march, could you include a vehicle or two to accommodate those who are not able to march?

Legal Concerns

  • Permits  You can generally have a small protest without a permit if you stay on the sidewalk, don’t have an elaborate sound system, and don’t obstruct traffic. However, if you are planning a really large protest you will likely want a sound system (see above) and/or a stage, in which case you may want or need a permit. Reach out to the local police department and ask them about the process for getting a permit. (Note: sometimes this takes a few days, so reach out early if you can.)  Remember: you can still have a protest even without a permit. Be courteous and respectful with the police if they arrive, explain the purpose of your protest and your intention to be a well-contained, well-organized event. Often, the police will be reluctant to break up a protest because this will result in additional media coverage—which often makes them look bad.
  • Legal observers Invite the National Lawyers Guild. They have law students and lawyers who will come and watch the protest as “legal observers” – there to bear witness to any attempt by law enforcement to infringe on your First Amendment rights. Please try to invite them as early as possible – don’t wait till the day before your protest, if possible.
  • Arrests and civil disobedience It is unlikely that you will get arrested unless you engage in some form of direct action (such as sitting down in the street to block traffic, entering private property and refusing to leave, etc). However, prepare for the worst: follow EFF’s guide to cell phone security at a protest and write the phone number of the local National Lawyer’s Guild on your arm in sharpie.  Don’t bring weapons or drugs to a protest.  If you are arrested, the safest thing is to refuse to answer questions until you speak with a lawyer. While getting arrested is scary, you’ll probably just get released within twenty-four hours with no charges. However, be aware that an arrest may result in immigration consequences for non-citizens. If you engage in some form of civil disobedience (such as refusing an order to disperse) or face charges, then consult with a lawyer for advice.  For more information, you can check out the legal support information available at the former Midnight Special Collective website.

Excited? Then join us. Visit and get involved.

Note: This is an introductory guide for hosting a march or protest. It is not intended to cover issues of civil disobedience.

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