• December 18, 2014

Bend, Don't Break, When Students Protest

In September, the New York City police arrested students at the City University of New York who were protesting CUNY's appointment of David Petraeus, a former director of the CIA, as a visiting professor. The officers were accused by some people of using excessive force.

In October, students at Brown University, protesting the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy, shouted down Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly before he could speak at a campus event. The students ignored the moderator's offer to question Kelly after the event, forcing Brown to cancel the speech.

Student protests are rites of passage on campuses everywhere. Those two examples show how either party to a campus protest—the administration and law enforcement or student protesters—can upset a delicate balance and transform civilized student action into what could evolve into a worst-case scenario. Such incidents have happened on many campuses, despite the best intentions and precautions of students and administrations. For example, two years ago, at the University of California at Davis, a campus police officer pepper-sprayed peaceful, seated protesters, resulting in a presidential apology and a nearly $1-million settlement for the protesters.

For administrators, the idea is to tolerate the inconvenience while articulating lines that protesters cannot cross.

Colleges can reduce the risk of similar episodes on their campuses by assuming a "bend, don't break" approach to protests, tolerating as much inconvenience as college operations can handle while articulating clear lines that protesters cannot cross. If those lines are crossed, administrators can try to end the protests and penalize the protesters, but in the least forcible and punitive ways possible.

This approach does not seek to squelch dissent. It remains faithful to traditions of free expression by allowing students to voice their views vigorously, no matter how antagonistic or repugnant to the administration or community. But it tries to reconcile those traditions with a university's legitimate interests in defending its own positions, protecting its operations, and maintaining the dignity and safety of all involved, including the protesters themselves.

This balance requires planning and forethought. Colleges should:

  • Maintain a decision-making team for responding to protests. The president should lead the team because he or she should be the only person to approve the institution's response, especially the use of extreme measures like arrest and removal. Planning can narrow the issues that arise during a protest, a time when events can change rapidly and often seem overwhelming.
  • Designate student-affairs professionals to communicate with protest leaders. The officials should have the administration's authority to engage the protesters at every stage of the demonstration, even beforehand. Their job would be to negotiate with protesters, communicate expectations, and channel any protest into a reasonably controlled yet open forum. This would include reminding students that free speech goes both ways—they have no more right to suppress opposing views than a college does.
  • Have student-affairs offices communicate with student government, to ensure that elected student representatives and their constituents understand the administration's position. The protesters may be only a small yet vocal minority whose opinions the majority of students do not share.
  • Use their legitimate right to manage the "time, place, and manner" of a protest. As to time, students may be allowed to stage a day's sit-in but not a prolonged siege. With regard to place, the college should consult with the student government in designating locations on campus where student action can be seen and heard by many. The administration building probably cannot be off-limits to protests, since senior leadership will most likely be the subject of any serious student action, but access does not mean occupation. And as for manner, the administration should develop rational and reasonable restrictions on how student action can occur, such as barring protesters from erecting structures on a quad or allowing only registered students, with university IDs, to demonstrate on the campus. Public institutions must craft those restrictions in compliance with the First Amendment.
  • Review possible scenarios in which campus safety would require the removal and arrest of protesters or the use of devices like pepper spray. The goal of this review is to narrow the circumstances in which such measures would be necessary, using them in the least forcible way and only as a last resort.
  • Legally monitor social media to assess protesters' plans. The protesters are most assuredly monitoring the administration on the web. The administration should review only what is publicly available and never engage in eavesdropping or any other form of invasion of privacy.
  • Prepare a news-media strategy, but use it only as necessary. Many protests are over obscure issues with little relevance to the college community, let alone the community at large. Publicly responding to such protests could elevate what otherwise would have gone largely unnoticed. When interacting with the media, communications personnel can disagree with the protesters' positions but should never denounce the protesters personally. They are not the enemy.
  • Above all, avoid making matters worse. Do not personalize the matter or overreact. Colleges are incubators for dissent, debate, and deliberation, and administrations should view protests as learning opportunities. Colleges can teach students not only how to resolve conflicts in a civil and tolerant manner but also how to listen to different beliefs as intensely as they advocate their own. Administrations should demonstrate that repugnant speech is best challenged by the words of calm and deliberate men and women who rise above provocation.

Student demonstrations have always been a part of college life and often fall into a pattern between the protesters and administration. Most student demonstrators want to make their points and get some publicity as a bonus; they do not want to hurt anyone or damage anything, and almost none aim to be arrested or disciplined. Protesters will disperse eventually, after they have made their points—removing them forcibly before then may inflame a situation that would otherwise have resolved itself.

If administrators plan and respond patiently and commensurately to the threats that protesters pose—which are often minimal—they will have succeeded in navigating through a rite of passage for both students and institutions.

José D. Padilla is a vice president and general counsel at DePaul University.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.