The Law

Protest and Assembly

The First Amendment’s protection of peaceful assembly and protest means that students, faculty, and administrators alike enjoy a constitutional right to engage in protected speech in order to debate, protest, and express themselves. 

The government may impose some restrictions on the right to assemble so long as it is neutral with regard to the content or message of the expression. Time, place, and manner restrictions such as limits on noise or on the number of protesters allowed in a public space, or the barring of early morning or late-night protest must leave ample alternative channels for communicating the speaker’s message.

Recent controversies have arisen regarding the extent to which campus officials may impose restrictions on protest groups, especially when it comes to students’ responses to controversial invited speakers. To learn more about these controversies, see our report Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America.

Broadly, universities have employed a number of tactics to control speech that they deem inappropriate: Some universities have limited activities such as pamphleteering or spontaneous demonstrations to contained areas on campus — so-called “free-speech zones.”  These zones may violate the First Amendment and contravene principles of free speech.

Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is a form of nonviolent protest that involves willfully and wittingly violating certain laws. While it is not protected under the First Amendment, it has a rich history in the United States as a powerful tactic that has been used to great effect by the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war protestors, and AIDS activists, as well as many other important social and political movements. Civil disobedience is, by definition, illegal conduct, and individuals participating in it should make sure they thoroughly understand the potential consequences of their actions and be prepared to accept them.

Typical forms of civil disobedience involve intentionally flouting a law or regulation that the protester believes to be unjust or intentionally violating time, place, and manner restrictions. Protesters who violate campus rules and regulations are subject to discipline by the university according to institutional policies and procedures, while protesters who violate local, state, or federal law are subject to legal consequences, including but not limited to arrest, fines, and criminal charges. However, the mere violation of laws and policies does not necessarily justify campus punishment unless this violation has caused a meaningful harm to another. Campuses must be careful to ensure that any punishment fits the violation and an individual is not being punished for the acts of others, or because of their viewpoint, or because of outside influence.

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