Tips for students considering engaging in a protest involving civil disobedience

Civil disobedience is a form of protest that involves the willful refusal to comply with certain laws. While it is not protected by the First Amendment, nonviolent civil disobedience has often been effective in achieving social change, and it has a particularly rich history on campus. Beginning in the 1960s with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the South and the free speech movement at UC Berkeley, civil disobedience became a common tactic of students advocating for civil rights, withdrawal from Vietnam, and other social and political issues. This brave history has unfortunately been accompanied by a history of excessive force used by authorities. On campus, the most infamous such response was at Kent State in 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard killed four students who were protesting the United States’ bombing of Cambodia. Protest organizers today should make every effort to inform students of the risks of engaging in civil disobedience, including possible disciplinary or legal consequences.


    Several nonprofit organizations, including the National Lawyers Guild and the Ruckus Society, offer civil disobedience training for protesters. Several others, including ACT UP and War Resisters League, offer free toolkits.


    Prepare for responses from both campus and local authorities. Be aware of the rules and laws governing the place where you plan to hold your protest. If the property is not on campus, university authorities may not have jurisdiction and you may be subjecting yourself to local or state law enforcement. Note that, even if the protest is on campus, universities may call in external authorities. Familiarize yourself with relevant campus policies. 


    Protest leaders should be careful to inform participants of what they can expect. Be sensitive to the fact that some individuals are more vulnerable to arrest than others. For example, some data shows that there are disparities in how police use force against white people vs. people of color, and noncitizens may be at particular risk. See the Center for Constitutional Rights for more information on what to consider before participating in civil disobedience.


    Violence in protest should be avoided and considered only in self-defense. An act of violence committed by even one protester can escalate the situation and lead to a more aggressive response from police. Administrators and public opinion will be less receptive to your ideas if your protests involve any kind of violence. Any criminal acts can be used as probable cause for arrest.


    If an officer asks you a question, engage honestly and peacefully.


    Give students who cannot or do not want to participate opportunities to support the effort. Create a “jail support team” to assist protesters who have been arrested. Have people lawfully holding signs or chanting outside the area where people may get arrested. Designate participants as points of contact for campus and local media.

Further Reading

External Resources