What are the rules governing protests on American campuses?

IF COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY’S president, Minouche Shafik, thought that pro-Palestinian demonstrations would subside after she called in New York City police on April 18th, she was wrong. The tents are back and protesters are emboldened: in the early hours of April 30th they occupied a university building, barred its doors and draped a flag reading “intifada” from its façade. Since the start of the war in Gaza there have been protests at universities across America and, at many of them, arrests. Students say, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, that they are exercising their free-speech rights. What policies govern protest and speech on campus?

That depends on whether a university is public or private. Public ones are bound by the American constitution’s First Amendment, which protects most speech and “expressive” activity (flag-burning, say) no matter how abhorrent. There are narrow exceptions, including threats against individuals or small groups or incitement to imminent violence. Private universities are not bound by the First Amendment but their policies generally echo its principles. Still, all colleges impose limits on the “time, place and manner” of protests, to ensure that students can attend class; these apply regardless of protesters’ viewpoint. Blocking buildings, interrupting lectures, camping overnight and making a racket tend to be banned. Columbia forbids personal tents on its lawns.

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