Know Your Rights: Student Protests

Recently, the ACLU published an open letter responding to the protests that have spread across our nation’s university and college campuses, and the disturbing arrests that have followed. The letter calls on college and university presidents to safeguard principles of academic freedom and free speech on their campuses. 

The letter reminds higher education leaders the Supreme Court has forcefully rejected the premise that, “because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large.” 

“Quite to the contrary,” the Court stated, “the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.” 

The widely publicized arrests, suspensions, and expulsions of students, along with the canceling of commencement ceremonies, fly in the face of this long-held standard of legal protections and will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on free speech on both public and private university campuses. 

Universities have a long tradition of student advocacy and engagement, where viewpoints are tested and debate is encouraged. As students continue to fulfill their integral, historical role in leading social movements, we offer some information that might be useful for college and university students who seek to exercise their first amendment rights.  

What are my First Amendment rights if I attend a public institution? 

The First Amendment protects the rights of students at public colleges and universities to express their opinions, even if others disagree with the views expressed or the form of expression. That means students have a constitutional right to engage in peaceful marches and demonstrations, wear symbolic clothing, coordinate boycotts, and any other expressive actions which do not substantially disrupt the campus environment. However, public institutions are still allowed to set reasonable, viewpoint-neutral rules related to the time, place, and manner of student speech. Some examples of reasons why a protest might be restricted include disruption of school activities, calls for immediate illegal actions, or endangering the safety of others.  

Do I have First Amendment rights at my private institution? 

Private institutions generally are not bound by the First Amendment. A private school student’s free speech rights are determined by the individual school’s code of conduct. To learn your school’s rules and policies, you can try searching “code of conduct” on your school’s website or reaching out to your school’s administration, such as your office of student affairs or your registrar.  

Can my university discipline me for what I say or do off campus? 

Student codes of conduct often extend to off-campus behavior for both public and private university students. Whether you are engaging in social media activism or attending in-person actions, you should be aware that there is often no clear on/off-campus distinction with respect to your institution’s ability to discipline you for off-campus activities. In the past, courts have permitted universities to punish students for activities like hosting unauthorized events and posting threats on social media while off-campus. 

Does my university have to protect me from discriminatory harassment and violence? 

Both private and public universities are required to guarantee all students equal access to education. Title VI of the Civil Rights Acts requires all schools to protect students from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, including discriminatory violence from or harassment by fellow students.  

If you still have questions, you can read more from the ACLU on student’s rights and protesters’ rights. For pro-Palestine protest information specifically, you can visit Palestine Legal. If you believe that your college or university has violated your civil rights, tell us about it by filling out our legal intake form.