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Back to School: Preparing for Campus Unrest

In the wake of the deadly Charlottesville protests, institutions of higher education are under heightened pressure to prepare their campuses for disruption and unrest.  Many colleges and universities have open campuses, enjoy historic visibility in their communities, and place a high value on free speech, expression, and the exchange of ideas, exposing them to unique challenges in planning for protests and civil disobedience.  As this academic year begins, it is critical that campus administrators equip themselves and their communities to manage and, when appropriate, to take affirmative steps to prevent campus unrest, whether initiated by student groups or third parties. 

The proactive development of sound and well-thought out policies that balance the value of speech with the institution’s compelling interests in safety and preventing the disruption of campus operations is the foundation for successful management of these situations.  Now more than ever, it is important, even for institutions that have not experienced significant campus unrest in the past, to develop a model response to campus unrest and determine whether institutional policies permit and support this model.    

Institutions should review their policies to determine (1) what procedures are in place for managing and monitoring student protests and demonstrations; and (2) how much authority they have to limit or condition access to their campus by third parties.  Thoughtfully drafted campus facilities use, protest, and demonstration policies can effectively set expectations and establish procedures for regulating picketing, protesting, and demonstrating on campus by students and third parties.  But they are not the only policies that demand attention, review, and coordination.  Other policies that may dictate how and to what extent an institution can control or limit civil disobedience on campus may include:

  • Campus trespass policies;

  • Policies that describe the purpose and use of campus;

  • Facilities use and event policies;

  • Academic freedom and other speech or expression policies;

  • Tabling, bulletin board, leafletting, or chalking policies;

  • Emergency response and other communications policies;

  • Student organization policies;

  • Policies that describe or limit the carrying and use of weapons on campus; and

  • Student codes of conduct.

In reviewing their policies, administrators should consider how they limit access to campus, including the rhetoric used to describe the institution’s values, which groups and individuals can reserve and use delineated spaces, and whether campus streets are publicly accessible or can be limited with regard to pedestrian and automobile traffic.  Institutions should ensure that their facilities use policies contain clear and publicized registration procedures requiring sufficient notice of all pertinent details of a proposed event.  Policies must also permit action to move or shut down an event in the event of an emergency, violation of policy, or disruptive conduct, and to undertake disciplinary and law enforcement action where appropriate. 

Any number and configuration of campus constituencies can be affected by regulations on campus speech.  Administrators should be mindful of who their institutional policies are intended to target—students or third parties—and draft their policies to clearly cover only the intended targets.  Administrators should also be aware of unintentional targets, considering, for example, how the policies will apply when a student group brings a third party to campus or when the protesters are alumni. 

Institutions should be wary of a one-size-fits-all approach.  While it can be instructive to review other schools’ policies, what works for a large, public institution will almost certainly not work for a small, private institution.  In particular, while public institutions must remain keenly aware of the First Amendment implications of limiting speech on campus, private institutions must be careful that their policies do not inadvertently grant students and third parties “rights” that they are not otherwise due and may be difficult for the institution to support.

Now is the time—even if your academic year has already begun—to examine, revise and coordinate implementation of pertinent policies so that administrators may smoothly, safely, and consistently address campus access, facilities use, and potential unrest as it may develop. 

Copyright © 2017 Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, PLLC. All Rights Reserved.

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About this Author

Beth Tyler Jones, Womble Carlyle Law Firm, Employment and Education Law Attorney
Partner

Beth practices primarily in the areas of employment and education law. She concentrates her practice on providing effective counseling and compliance assistance to enable her clients to manage risks proactively. She is a leader of the Firm’s Education Team.

Beth uses her experience as a human resources professional and in-house legal counsel to assist employers, both public and private, in complying with all federal and state employment laws including preparing policies, procedures, programs, plans, handbooks...

919-755-8177
Elizabeth LeVan Riley, Womble Carlyle Law Firm, Raleigh, Higher Education Attorney

Liz Riley has been with Womble Carlyle since 1986. She concentrates her practice in school and higher education law. Her practice evolved as a business litigator with a passion for working with school leaders on the many issues facing schools, colleges and universities as they strive to deal with legal compliance and shifting campus demands in the ever-evolving world of education. Liz works with a variety of public traditional and charter schools, private schools, colleges, universities, foundations, education management organizations (EMOs) and charter management organizations (CMOs). Whether the issue at hand is school policy, governance, compliance, risk and claims management or construction issues, Liz provides a solid foundation of knowledge and a guiding hand. She has been called upon to assist with the licensure and chartering of new schools and can provide valuable insight regarding institutional partnering with outside providers. She works regularly on matters involving auxiliary or foreign college campus sites, including state authorization requirements for degree-granting programs.  Across the spectrum of education law, Liz’s depth of experience provides intuitive support and advice for school managers, college administrators and governing boards alike.

919-755-2114
Rebecca Fleishman, Womble Carlyle Law Firm, Raleigh, Education and Employment Attorney

Rebecca Fleishman practices in the areas of education and employment law, representing and advising institutions of higher education, public charter schools, and corporations in litigation and day-to-day compliance. She counsels clients in employment, student, and policy matters and draws on her experience as a federal judicial clerk and staff attorney to guide and advocate for clients through all stages of litigation.

Prior to joining Womble Carlyle, Rebecca represented public school systems in student and employment matters...

919-755-2176