What to consider when drafting a civil disobedience policy

While civil disobedience, by definition, is not protected speech, it may sometimes be appropriate for universities to go beyond their legal obligations in response to it. A policy that calls for a judicious, nonviolent, and proportionate response will foster a healthy climate for political speech and dissent, ensure a safe and inclusive environment for students, and maintain trust between students and administrators. Civil disobedience has a rich history on campus and can be a powerful tool for driving social change. It is imperative that college campuses be prepared to respond to civil disobedience in a non-violent, proportionate way. Universities must also recognize that those who take the risk of engaging in it typically believe deeply in their causes. To preserve (or restore) trust between student protesters and the administration, it is important to make these students feel heard, to communicate clearly what actions will be taken against them, and to treat protesters with respect and civility.


    Policies should Include language that recognizes the historic role of civil disobedience in civic life and its importance as a tool for social change. Make clear that civil disobedience is not protected speech and that, by definition, it involves violating laws or regulations. Those who engage in it should be prepared to accept the consequences.


    Make your campus’s time, place, and manner regulations publicly available in an easily accessible, user-friendly format. Denote which conduct is or could be perceived as a threat to public safety that would warrant a police response. Require campus police to publicize its use-of-force policy, including information on weapons or tools approved for use in response to civil disobedience.


    If possible, modify campus police policies to require senior administrators’ approval to respond to any form of civil disobedience. Develop guidelines that delineate which acts of civil disobedience merit a response and specify best practices for those responses. Responses from campus police should involve as little force as possible. When applicable, institute a requirement to rely on campus security instead of outside law enforcement.


    Train campus police specifically in how to peacefully respond to civil disobedience.


    Faculty and administrators should be the first line of response to civil disobedience. Campus police should be called in only if negotiations with faculty and administrators fail.

Further Reading

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