If student protests involve civil disobedience

Civil disobedience is a form of protest that involves the willful refusal to comply with certain laws. While it is not typically protected by the First Amendment, nonviolent civil disobedience has often been deployed to demand social change, and it has a rich history on college campuses. It is imperative that schools be prepared to respond to civil disobedience in a nonviolent, proportionate way.


    Be ready with an internal policy for administrators on how to deal with protesters engaged in civil disobedience and ensure that senior administration is well versed in it. Institute guidelines for campus police as well and make sure they are properly trained. See our advice for drafting a civil disobedience policy.


    Ensure that the protest actually amounts to civil disobedience and is not, in fact, protected speech. Assess whether or not the protesters have a plan to engage in violence.


    Let the students know that you hear their concerns. If you do not address them directly in the moment, make clear that you will be addressing them after some reflection. Offer a time and place to participate in structured conversation about the issue at hand, preparing students to accept the consequences of their actions, which might include  arrest. Laying this groundwork can make students less likely to believe that any punitive measures are designed to shut down their speech.


    Let the students know that you recognize their protest as a form of civil disobedience and that any punitive action you may take is a direct engagement with and response to their chosen form of protest. 

  • WARN

    Tell the students that what they are doing is against the law or against school policy. Make sure they know the specific consequences of their demonstration before you take any action against them, so they can decide whether they are prepared to accept the consequences.


    Use campus police or security rather than local or state authorities whenever possible. Recognize that students of color may be particularly distrustful of law enforcement and that calling it in may be seen as an act of betrayal. 


    Issue a timely public response that recognizes that students chose to engage in civil disobedience. Reach out to students involved in the protest and offer to have a mediated conversation.


    Civil disobedience is powerful in part because those engaged in it are prepared to accept the consequences of their actions. In some cases an institutional response may be warranted, but when that response goes too far, there can be a strong chilling effect on people’s willingness to exercise their constitutional and human right to protest. Make sure that your disciplinary measures are not excessively punitive for nonviolent acts of civil disobedience. If possible, avoid measures like suspension and expulsion.

Further Reading

External Resource