In the wake of the deadly Charlottesville protests, institutions of higher education are under heightened pressure to prepare their campuses for disruption and unrest. Many colleges and universities have open campuses, enjoy historic visibility in their communities, and place a high value on free speech, expression, and the exchange of ideas, exposing them to unique challenges in planning for protests and civil disobedience. As this academic year begins, it is critical that campus administrators equip themselves and their communities to manage and, when appropriate, to take affirmative steps to prevent campus unrest, whether initiated by student groups or third parties.

The proactive development of sound and well-thought out policies that balance the value of speech with the institution’s compelling interests in safety and preventing the disruption of campus operations is the foundation for successful management of these situations. Now more than ever, it is important, even for institutions that have not experienced significant campus unrest in the past, to develop a model response to campus unrest and determine whether institutional policies permit and support this model.

Institutions should review their policies to determine (1) what procedures are in place for managing and monitoring student protests and demonstrations; and (2) how much authority they have to limit or condition access to their campus by third parties. Thoughtfully drafted campus facilities use, protest, and demonstration policies can effectively set expectations and establish procedures for regulating picketing, protesting, and demonstrating on campus by students and third parties. But they are not the only policies that demand attention, review, and coordination. Other policies that may dictate how and to what extent an institution can control or limit civil disobedience on campus may include:

  • Campus trespass policies;
  • Policies that describe the purpose and use of campus;
  • Facilities use and event policies;
  • Academic freedom and other speech or expression policies;
  • Tabling, bulletin board, leafletting, or chalking policies;
  • Emergency response and other communications policies;
  • Student organization policies;
  • Policies that describe or limit the carrying and use of weapons on campus; and
  • Student codes of conduct.

In reviewing their policies, administrators should consider how they limit access to campus, including the rhetoric used to describe the institution’s values, which groups and individuals can reserve and use delineated spaces, and whether campus streets are publicly accessible or can be limited with regard to pedestrian and automobile traffic. Institutions should ensure that their facilities use policies contain clear and publicized registration procedures requiring sufficient notice of all pertinent details of a proposed event. Policies must also permit action to move or shut down an event in the event of an emergency, violation of policy, or disruptive conduct, and to undertake disciplinary and law enforcement action where appropriate.

Any number and configuration of campus constituencies can be affected by regulations on campus speech. Administrators should be mindful of who their institutional policies are intended to target—students or third parties—and draft their policies to clearly cover only the intended targets. Administrators should also be aware of unintentional targets, considering, for example, how the policies will apply when a student group brings a third party to campus or when the protesters are alumni.

Institutions should be wary of a one-size-fits-all approach. While it can be instructive to review other schools’ policies, what works for a large, public institution will almost certainly not work for a small, private institution. In particular, while public institutions must remain keenly aware of the First Amendment implications of limiting speech on campus, private institutions must be careful that their policies do not inadvertently grant students and third parties “rights” that they are not otherwise due and may be difficult for the institution to support.

Now is the time—even if your academic year has already begun—to examine, revise and coordinate implementation of pertinent policies so that administrators may smoothly, safely, and consistently address campus access, facilities use, and potential unrest as it may develop.