3 Observations: Campus Protests

Getting prepared.

December 19, 2019

Over the coming month, I am speaking at several conferences on the topic of free speech and protest on campus. As I think about the particular topics I will be addressing, I keep coming back to three observations that ground all my advice to campus leaders.

Protest Is the New Normal

In the United States, our commitment to free speech means that we not only tolerate protest and dissent, we celebrate it. From the Boston Tea Party at the outset of the Revolution to the SNCC sit-ins of the civil rights era, protests have driven some of the most important developments in our nation’s history. So it is no surprise that idealistic and politically engaged college students quickly turn to protest when seeking change to policies or practices on or off campus.

This past month, Harvard has experienced a climate change protest that halted a football game, the establishment of picket lines by a striking union, the interruption of a faculty meeting and student occupation of the admissions office in response to a tenure decision, and a student protest of the student-run newspaper in response to its coverage of immigration issues. This level of activism is not unique to Harvard. Nor is it a sign of administrative or leadership failure. It is just the new normal. A similar story can be told about a large number of our institutions, particularly those with a diverse student body. In a world driven by social media and global internet access, there is no more effective way for activists to communicate and mobilize than protest. For persons trying to make change, it is a highly attractive option. It is not going to go away. If you have not yet experienced significant protest on your campus, you probably will soon.

Create Your Plan Now

Protests can be launched and, in some cases, explode into a crisis, very quickly. They are also highly charged experiences for everyone involved. It is very hard, when caught up in the moment, to think clearly and rationally about the steps one should take. For this reason, it is absolutely essential that institutions -- particularly those with little prior experience of protest activity -- develop their contingency plans now, before a crisis strikes, while there is time to examine options. Imagine different types of protests that might strike your campus. Imagine the different issues that might become controversial, the principles at stake and the types of tactics that might be employed. Think about who on your team will be responsible for dealing with the situation, what their roles will be and how this team will respond to the various scenarios you might face. How will you communicate about protests? What sanctions, if any, will you employ when students cross certain lines? Under what circumstances will you involve law enforcement? Who will take responsibility for meeting with protesters? What issues are open to negotiation and which ones are nonnegotiable? What role will the president play? Start to answer these questions now, so you are not making these decisions under stress and time pressure.

Three Different Kinds of Protests

As you plan, recognize that not all protests are created equally: different types of protest activity will implicate different values and call for different administrative responses. I tend to divide protests into three buckets.

The most benign protests are those that (a) do not interfere with the speech rights of others and (b) do not significantly impede campus operations. Examples might include a lawful union picket line, activists holding signs during a campus talk or calls for students to boycott particular campus activities or events. These protests may raise communications challenges for the university or an event sponsor, but they don’t impede the ability of other community members to do their jobs or convey their own ideas. In these case, the administrative response can usually be limited to communication and negotiation.

A second category: protests that do not interfere with the free speech of others, but do interfere with campus operations. Here, the university may need to respond with disciplinary sanctions or student removal, depending on the extent of the disruption. If, for example, students occupy your admissions office, how long will you choose to tolerate that? At what point will you seek to have the students removed? What degree of disruption will warrant student discipline and expulsion? All of these issues must be thought through beforehand, with a particular eye toward campus history and context. If possible, bright lines need to be identified and shared with the community beforehand, so students understand potential consequences.

Finally, the third and most significant category: protests with free speech dimensions. This category includes protest activity that prevents the free exchange of ideas, limits or prohibits a speaker from addressing an audience, or interferes with the ability of a professor to teach their class. These scenarios are radically different from the other two categories and require a very different response. While protest activity in the other categories may be challenging and disruptive, protests that limit the speech of others threaten the very purpose of the university, which is grounded in the free exchange of beliefs, values, opinions and theories. In my view, administrative leaders must respond decisively to these events, to protect the right of speakers to communicate and to deter future acts that disrupt speech.

(The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of the Navy or the federal government.)


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