Students Are Protesting at Your College. Here’s How to Keep the Campus Calm.

November 12, 2014

The Education Law Association and the Naspa Research and Policy Institute plan within weeks to publish "Responding to Campus Protests: A Practitioner Resource," a guide that distills much of the currently accepted wisdom about how colleges can maintain order on campuses while respecting students’ speech rights. Here’s a summary of its chief recommendations.

Think Ahead. The best time to deal with campus protests is before they actually occur. Administrators should put in place a command structure spelling out who will make decisions, monitor developments on the ground, and respond to any news-media requests. They should decide in advance what developments will prompt them to summon outside law-enforcement agencies and who will work with the police.

Know Thyself. Colleges should establish speech policies that take into account their own mission, culture, setting, and student population, and should train their campus police force accordingly. Such training should be done in collaboration with crisis teams and various administrative units, such as housing and student-affairs offices, to help ensure that campus police officers know their institution and see themselves not as adversaries of students but as participants in the education process.

Whether a college is public or private can make a big difference: The U.S. Constitution’s free-speech and due-process provisions generally apply only to public institutions, although some states, such as California and New Jersey, have laws affording speech protections to private-college students as well. Colleges can establish speech-related legal obligations for themselves contractually, through student codes and handbooks.

Get It Together. Too often, campus regulations dealing with speech and assembly are scattered throughout separate documents, including governing-board policies and campus police forces’ internal rules. The result can be regulations that conflict or otherwise cause confusion, leaving colleges at risk of inconsistent or discriminatory enforcement and resulting legal trouble. Colleges should consolidate and cross-reference speech regulations to ensure consistency.

Strike the Right Balance. Any policy dealing with campus speech should balance the college’s interest in maintaining order and preventing disruption against students’ interests and rights.

Public colleges should avoid content-based speech regulations, which are vulnerable to legal challenges under the First Amendment, and instead focus on regulating the time, place, and manner of protest only as much as clearly necessary. They can establish "free-speech zones" for demonstrations or rallies but should remember that students may also have a right to protest on public land on or near the campus. Even within classrooms, students may have a right to engage in purely symbolic protests—by, for example, wearing colored armbands—or dissent that serves a legitimate educational purpose.

Public colleges, especially, should use caution in requiring students to seek administrative approval of protest plans several days in advance, and should make sure any such process moves quickly and focuses on safety considerations, not what the protesters plan to say.