Why Some Universities Allow Protests And Others Don’t
Monique Bolsajian Graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara
One thing that unites them all? They're mad.
And they have good reason. Whether it's the way the government is responding to the Coronavirus, racial and wealth inequality or the cost of higher education, they have a lot to be angry about.
Universities are traditionally considered epicenters of academic thought and social change.
One of the ways in which universities have the power to initiate social change is through students, who throughout history, have led protests on campus.
Protests, as we well know, can happen in person - even during the pandemic. But there can also be virtual protests.
Either way, not all universities like it when students protest. Some even punish students for organizing protests. Here, we explain why.
The Difference Between Public Universities and Private Universities
Public universities, like government institutions, are bound by law to uphold the First Amendment on campus.
The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech and right to protest in this country.
Private universities, however, are not always bound by the same rules.
Courts have ruled that private universities are not required to uphold the First Amendment. The Constitution and Bill of Rights protect students from government attempts to limit their freedom of speech -- and seeing as private institutions, unlike public institutions, are not government institutions, the First Amendment does not always protect students at private institutions.
If private institutions want to put measures in place that restrict free speech in favor of promoting another set of philosophical or educational values, there is nothing to stop them from doing so.
These schools can argue that students consent to these speech policies when they sign their enrollment contracts.
However, it is important to note that universities must also keep their promises to students, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
If private universities advertise themselves as an institution that favors the freedom of speech, FIRE explains, they must follow through on their promise. If they do not, it is possible that students can argue their case for free speech as something they thought was guaranteed through the school’s advertising.
There are private institutions that do not hide their feelings about speech restrictions. Brigham Young University, for example, clearly states in its policies that it will limit speech when the “behavior or expression seriously and adversely affects the university mission or the Church.”
Students entering this school know, in this instance, that there may be restrictions placed on their freedom of speech on campus. If they choose to protest about an issue that BYU finds is in contrast with their mission, the school may have the power to end that protest, though this does not happen very often.
What the Penalties can be at Private Universities
But other private universities, ones that many expect would be champions for free speech, still have very specific policies that limit speech on campus.
For example, Northwestern University, a private university that was ranked ninth best school nationally in 2020 and the third best journalism school in the United States in 2018, has a history of disciplining students who participate in protests.
In spring 2017, a group of students disrupted a sociology class where an Immigration and Customs Enforcement employee was scheduled to speak. The disruption caused the class to “end early without hearing from the ICE representative.”
Northwestern University responded to the protest, saying that it was “disrespectful” and “inappropriate.” The Daily Northwestern reported that “Participants of the demonstration faced disciplinary action soon after,” a process that involved “pursuing a formal resolution under the procedures of the student handbook.”
Further information about this disciplinary process was not specified.
Some examples of policies that limit speech at private institutions include “speech codes; civility policies” and “bans on ‘disruptive’ speech,” among others. Some schools also designate certain areas where free speech is permitted, such as quads and specific walkways.
These policies can be controversial for students and faculty. Some critics state that the provided free speech areas are often “absurdly small and unreasonable.”
Penalties for violating these policies may vary depending on your school’s specific enrollment contract.
If a student has an issue with their private college’s restrictions on speech, clauses in these contracts could make it especially hard for them to bring the issue to the university’s attention and reach a resolution.
One such example of this is the existence of forced arbitration clauses, which “prohibit students or former students from going to court to seek resolution of any complaints.” These students or former students must go through a private process to resolve their issues.
This makes it difficult for students to properly hold universities accountable. According to the New America think tank, forced arbitration means that “most students are unlikely to pursue their cases because of the cost of doing so,” “discovery is often limited in arbitration, making it difficult for students to gather evidence of wrongdoing,” and “arbitration decisions generally cannot be appealed.”
A private process also sweeps issues that come up with schools under the rug, preventing other students facing similar problems from gathering the information they need and accessing the proper resources going into the arbitration process.
It also prevents the university’s student body, university community, and the general public at large from holding the university accountable.
The Century Foundation “collect[ed] enrollment contracts from 271 schools across the higher education spectrum -- public, private nonprofit, and for-profit schools -- and studied them for language that limited students’ rights.” They found that public and nonprofit colleges do not implement such contractual restrictions most of the time.
Other potential speech restrictions at private institutions include :
- Gag rules, which prevent current and former students from speaking to others about complaints they have filed and the process of resolving these complaints.
- Internal process requirements, which stop current and former students from trying to resolve any issues with external organizations before completing the school’s process.
- Go-it-alone clauses, where students with the same complaint must reach individual solutions with the school and cannot join with others to present their concern as a group.
How to Organize a Peaceful Protest at a University
There are several ways to organize a protest as a student. You can organize a march or a rally, which is what people often think of when they think of a protest. But you can also organize a boycott where you refuse to buy from certain sellers, or refuse to take part in an event or activity.
Walkouts and silent protests are other forms of protest as well.
However you choose to protest, there are a few things you want to make sure you do when you’re in your planning stages.
One of the most important aspects of protest planning is making sure you have legal support.
If you attend a private institution, review your enrollment contract with that university, as well as any policies on speech that they may have. Know what measures your school might take against you if they find that your speech violates their contract or policies.
You should have signed the enrollment contract as a part of the university enrollment process. Schools typically give students a copy of the signed contract. If you’re having trouble finding it, reach out to your school’s Office of Admissions and ask if they can provide you a copy.
Some protests might require you to get a permit. For example, some parks require a permit if your protest will attract more than a certain number of people. Be sure to research beforehand what the requirements are for the area where you choose to hold your protest.
If you want your protest to take place on campus, see what your university’s policies are regarding where protests are permitted and any permits that might be necessary.
It is also important that you have a strong leadership team when planning a protest. Come together with those individuals who are most passionate about your movement and who have experience leading and organizing protests. Reach out to your network and see if you can connect with someone who has organized a protest before who can offer some advice.
You and your leadership team also want to make sure you have a defined mission or goal that you are seeking to meet through your protest.
Whether it’s to demand legislation from your local representatives or draw attention to a specific issue, you want to have a set of clear goals in mind so that your protest is as effective as possible.
You may also want to create signs, slogans, or chants to incorporate in your protest to help you achieve this goal. You can use your slogans to advertise your protest on social media, print flyers, and draw attention to your cause.
Once at your protest, keeping it peaceful might prove to be a challenge depending on how large your protest is. To avoid any unexpected obstacles, be sure to plan as much as you can in advance.
When advertising your protest, you might want to ask protesters to bring items with them to keep them safe, like water bottles, snacks, sunscreen, first aid kits, hats, raincoats -- and if there’s a chance your protest might be met with violence, gear to protect from tear gas, like goggles and saline solution.
Regardless of how you protest in public, be sure to wear a face mask to protect yourself from the Coronavirus.
You will also want to take a form of identification with you, like a driver’s license. To prevent your item from being lost, you might want to keep it somewhere on your person rather than in a backpack or purse.
People tend to have mixed feelings when trying to decide if they want to bring their phone to a protest. For more information on the pros and cons of bringing your cell phone, read Court Buddy’s article here.
You also want to be aware of your rights and come up with a plan on what to do if you or other protesters are arrested. For example, you might want to write the phone number of a local bail fund on your arm before you attend the protest, or research pro-bono attorneys in your area that assist protesters who have been arrested.
For more detailed information about preparing for a protest and what to do if you’re arrested, see our Court Buddy article on protesting here.
If you feel that your free speech has been violated at a university and need legal help, or if you or someone you know has been arrested at a protest, Court Buddy can connect you with an attorney who can help.
Court Buddy is here to connect you with an experienced and trusted lawyer who can help you at an affordable rate. The company assists with the management of your case and lawyer relationship. Your lawyer will assess your legal issue in a timely and confidential manner, explain why you need or do not need a lawyer, and only charge you for the legal services performed and associated out of pocket fees. This article is intended to convey general information and does not constitute legal advice.