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Prepare for Violent Protests on Campus

Alyssa Keehan, Esq.
October 2020
Actions you can take to help keep protests peaceful

In times of polarized politics, your college or university may face serious risks from speakers or extremist groups coming to campus to create conflict, intimidate, or even incite violence. By preparing for potentially violent protests on campus, your institution can help keep the community safe while allowing peaceful demonstrations and supporting civil discourse.

This guide details actions your institution should take so it will be prepared when protests create a threat.

Focus on Safety

Campus protests are an important part of civil discourse, but your campus community’s safety must be the top priority. Put plans in place to prevent outside protests from turning violent and for responding if violent protests occur.

  • Update your crisis response plan. The crisis management team should regularly update the plan. Consider whether the plan anticipates peaceful protests becoming violent. Incorporate lessons learned from incidents on other campuses. Clearly define when a protest becomes a safety threat and an action plan to protect the campus community, up to and including sheltering in place or evacuating parts of campus.
  • Conduct drills and tabletops. Probe for weaknesses in your crisis response plan. Include key actions such as communicating with students and parents about planned protests, using methods for keeping protests peaceful, responding when violence erupts, and sharing information following a protest.
  • Create protocols and update policies. Your institution may have various policies that are applicable to potentially violent protests, including policies addressing registration of on-campus events, use of public spaces, campus safety, protests, civil disobedience, campus policing, and student codes of conduct. A comprehensive review can identify policies that must be updated or clarified.
  • Engage with your campus community. Plan ahead before protests occur. Communicate your institution’s position on free speech and violence. Educate students, faculty, and staff about potential dangers of confronting protesters and counter-protestors.
  • Designate a spokesperson. Anticipate questions from students, parents, faculty, staff, and the local community, both leading up to a controversial protest and in the event of actual violence. Draft and practice key messages and responses. Create a plan for monitoring and responding on social media.

Understand Legal Considerations

Campus protests can have legal implications.

  • Know laws regarding use of your public spaces. Public and private institutions face different restrictions on use of public spaces. State and local laws and institutional policies also can play a role. While it may be impossible to exclude a group or speaker, institutions often can restrict a protest’s location, time, and nature. Legal counsel can guide your institution about what limits may be imposed.
  • Train campus security forces. Whether your campus has a sworn police department or private security force, ensure campus security is equipped and trained to deal with potential violence. De-escalation training can be particularly effective in preventing violence once campus security becomes involved. (For more information on risks of the use of force by campus security and the potential benefits of de-escalation training, see United Educators’ (UE’s) claims study on Excessive Force by Campus Security.)
  • Take additional steps if your campus allows visitors to carry guns. Consult with legal counsel to understand whether it is possible to impose weapons restrictions at a potentially violent protest. Ensure campus security forces are trained and appropriately equipped to confront armed protesters.
  • Work with local police. Reach out to local law enforcement and be prepared to request help. If your institution does not have a memorandum of understanding in place with local police, create one. Examine options for how to involve the National Guard if necessary.

Gather Information About Speakers, Protesters

Learn more about potential speakers and protesters by doing the following:

  • Examine past behavior. Comb through news reports and social media, and check resources like the Southern Poverty Law Center for relevant background information. Solicit information from peer institutions that previously have allowed the speaker or group on campus.
  • Request details from controversial speakers or protesters prior to the visit. Once your institution has notice of a controversial speaker or planned protest, request details regarding how many people may come to campus, where these people plan to assemble, the nature of their activities, and how long they intend to stay. The group may not know or may misrepresent these details, so you may need to gather data from other sources and review past protests by the group.

Remain Vigilant During Protests

During protests, watch for intimidating or threatening activities from crowds of protesters and counter-protesters.

If you have a public institution, remember that the First Amendment doesn’t protect directly threatening or violent speech. Be prepared to act if protestors cross those lines.

Consult with legal counsel to understand how these rules apply to your institution.

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