Legal observers support protesters' exercise of their free speech rights by recording interactons between police and protesters. The role is about accountability, not intervention.
During mass movements, we often field more requests than our team can handle. The good news is that anyone can serve as a legal observer. You don't have to be a lawyer. You just need to know a few basics and commit to your role.
Legal Observer Basics
Legal observers do exactly what their name describes. They are neutral observers.
- Wear a vest, button or hat that clearly designates you as a legal observer. The more visible, the better. (The blue vest in the video is only available to ACLU staff and representatives but similar vests or bright safety vests can be found in most area hardware or supply stores.)
- Separate yourself from the protest but stand close enough that you can hear and observe what is happening.
- Document everything the police and protesters do as thoroughly as possible. We recommend using your phone and the Mobile Justice Nebraska app, which automatically uploads video to the ACLU of Nebraska's legal intake system. Social media platforms also allow livestreaming, which preserves your video if something happens to your phone during the protest. We recommend fully charging your phone before leaving for the protest. Also consider bringing a portable battery and charger. You will rely on your phone heavily to capture video of the protest. Remember: you have a right to film police.
- Your goal is to document incidents, arrests and official misconduct.
If you believe that some protesters are planning civil disobedience (a deliberate act such as blocking traffic without permission or vandalism, which is not protected by the First Amendment), maintain a safe distance to ensure you are not implicated in the situation.
- Make sure to record what the protesters were doing immediately before any arrest. Likewise, record what the police were doing. Did the officer issue a warning or offer an alternative to being arrested? Did they misquote the law?
- When possible, write down officers’ names, badge numbers or physical descriptions. Clarify your notes as soon as possible afterwards. This includes being as accurate as possible. Wear a watch or refer to your phone to record specific times.
Legal Observer Don'ts
- Don’t chant, carry signs or otherwise participate in the activities. The purpose of your presence is to be neutral observer and therefore a more credible witness if a case arises from the protest.
- You are not a peacekeeper. Do not become involved in arguments about the law with law enforcement — remember, you are there only to observe.
- Do not interfere with an arrest. You could be arrested for interfering.
Your observations won’t do any good if you are in jail and it will affect your credibility as a witness. Take all necessary steps you can to try to avoid being arrested.
Disperse when asked. Do not argue with police. Remember, while media have been exempted from curfews, legal observers do not enjoy the same protection.
Protecting Public Health
Like protests, legal observing has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. We strongly encourage you to take precautions to protect your health and the health of those around you. General information has been adopted from the ACLU of Idaho.
Don't volunteer if you or a loved one are at high risk for exposure.
Have you or anyone in your household displayed any COVID-19 symptoms (fever, tiredness, dry cough, aches and pains, runny nose, sore throat, nasal congestion, diarrhea)? Are you or someone in your household 65 or older? Are there underlying health issues that could increase your risk or the risk to a loved one? Will you travel to or from the event via public transit? Have you traveled or been in a hospital in the last 30 days? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, we recommend identifying another volunteer for this role.
Wear protective gear and bring sanitizer or soap and water.
We recommend wearing disposable exam gloves and a face mask. Wear a layer of removable exterior clothing and bring a plastic bag with you. Before you reenter your house or a public space, remove the clothing and put it in the plastic bag. Bring hand sanitizer or soap and water and use it whenever you touch something that you did not bring with you.
Practice social distancing.
Stay at least six feet away from other people unless it’s impossible to avoid it. If you need to speak with a person, before approaching, ask for consent. With consent, approach them face-to-face but slightly to the side. Stay six feet away unless you cannot speak with needed privacy from that distance; if you have to move closer, stay as far away as possible, asking for additional consent to get any closer. If you need to be close for private communication, move to the person’s side and speak towards the person’s ear, not to their face. Speak as briefly as possible. Then confirm they heard you and immediately step back to six feet away. At no time are you face-to-face closer than 6 feet away. If you need to get closer than six feet to adequately observe a law enforcement interaction, do so only when absolutely necessary and do not speak to anyone face-to-face.