Last year it seemed like at least once a month some form of protest or political demonstration unfolded somewhere in the United States. Fueled by a contentious and oftentimes volatile political landscape stemming from the election of President Donald Trump, these ubiquitous protests came in myriad shapes and sizes.
Some, like the Women’s March, were predominantly peaceful demonstrations of solidarity. Others, like the White Nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, devolved into frenzied, violent clashes resulting in injuries and even death.
Political prognosticators expect plenty of both kinds of demonstrations for 2018.
But regardless of a protest’s impetus or intent, some pressing questions about insurance linger beneath the surface. For instance, what happens if you get injured during a protest in which you are partaking? What happens if your property gets damaged in the fray? And if the group you are part of damages a home or vehicle, how liable are you as an individual?
“There’s not really a single answer to these questions,” says Arizona-based attorney Jason Katz. “Protests are considered ‘riots’ in home and auto insurance terminology, and there are ways to make sure you and your property are protected if you know a protest is going to be taking place in your city or town.”
So if you’re thinking about taking part in a protest in 2018 — or if you know you might be a passive bystander at a nearby demonstration — here’s what you need to know about making sure you’re financially covered.
Protecting your home, business and vehicle
Katz says almost all homeowner and business insurance policies contain coverage that kicks in should the property suffer damage from a violent protest or riot.
“Virtually every kind of policy that someone has — either for home or business — contains language that covers you for the peril of civil unrest or riots,” says Katz. “How much you’re covered for will depend on the specific policy, but you don’t need to add any special endorsements or riders. It’s automatically covered.”
To be sure, even peaceful protests can result in unexpected property damage. For instance, the Women’s March that took place in Washington, D.C., in January was neither violent nor destructive, but Katz points out that there’s still a chance the sheer volume of people resulted in some incidental property damage.
“But that doesn’t necessarily matter,” Katz says. “The key thing to understand is that any incidental property damage or bodily injury will be covered by the protest group or an individual’s general liability.”
Finally, according to the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, a standard homeowners policy will provide additional living expenses if you cannot live in your home because it was damaged during a violent protest or riot. This includes hotel bills, restaurant meals, and “other expenses incurred while your home is being rebuilt or repaired.”
When it comes to vehicle damage, however, things get slightly more nuanced.
Let’s say your car is parked on the street and a nearby protest turns into a violent clash. Someone swings a club or throws a rock and it shatters your window and dents a door. Whether you’re covered for that damage will depend on the type of coverage you have on the vehicle.
“It all comes down to general liability versus compressive coverage,” says Florida-based insurance agent Kellie Demotin. “If you only have liability coverage for your car because it’s older and not worth very much, then no. You’re not going to be covered for that. But if you have comprehensive coverage you’re all good, because that covers all sorts of perils, including vandalism and riots.”
Do protestors need special insurance?
If you’re planning to partake in a protest, it’s important to understand what is and isn’t required of you or your group of fellow demonstrators.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), local governments are legally allowed to require some small fees as a condition for exercising free speech. For instance, they may charge an application fee for a permit, a security deposit for cleanup, or money to cover overtime police costs.
They cannot, however, impose large fees for protests or demonstrations that are expected to be controversial or potentially incendiary — and that includes requiring protestors to purchase a large insurance policy.
“A permit cannot be denied because the event is controversial or will express unpopular views,” reads the ACLU’s official Protests & Demonstrations pamphlet. “Some government offices may charge a filing fee to pay for the administrative costs of processing the permit. The fee cannot be unreasonably large, and may need to be waived for indigent protesters. Insurance bonds also cannot be required.”
“Requiring protestors to purchase special insurance is considered an infringement on the First Amendment right to free speech,” says Jasmine Willis, a California-based civil rights attorney. “Think about it. What happens if you want to organize a protest or demonstration and can’t afford some astronomical insurance policy? Your right to organize and protest would be greatly hampered.”
Of course none of this matters if you break the law, Willis says.
“Just because the government can’t require you to buy special insurance doesn’t mean you’re immune to prosecution if you break the law,” Willis says. “If you or your group illegally damages property or harms someone, you could certainly be held financially accountable for that.”
In the end, Willis says it’s important for protestors to understand the difference between their own personal liability and their rights to exercise free speech.
“No one knows for sure if a protest or demonstration is going to get unruly or violent, but that’s why homes and businesses are insured,” Willis says. “It’s generally not the responsibility of the protestors to insure themselves against all potentially destructive behaviors. And if a local government or institution starts requiring things above and beyond a permit or nominal civil service fee, that should raise a red flag when it comes to your First Amendment rights.”