Protecting Innocent Students When Protests Turn Violent

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College students should be able to trust that school officials protect students’ physical safety on campus. To gain the most benefit from class and social life, students need assurances that their well-being is a priority.

Yet some at postsecondary institutions equate protecting students’ physical welfare with stifling free expression. Outside of the college bubble, when an individual physically harms another person, the result could be prison, job loss, or any number of long-term consequences. Campus administrators cannot ignore their responsibilities to teach students that actions have consequences. They should protect innocent students when protests turn violent and guard everyone’s right to free expression by sanctioning violent individuals that try to block free speech.

The new model legislation protecting free speech on campus from Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Jim Manley and myself of the Goldwater Institute includes provisions that require university officials adopt rules to help them prevent “speech or activity that is prohibited by law,” including “a range of disciplinary sanctions for anyone under the jurisdiction of the institution who interferes with the free expression of others.” The bill allows universities to protect students when other individuals—students, faculty, or other campus personnel—violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution through harassment or by breaking state or federal law.

The bill requires robust due process protections in “all disciplinary cases involving expressive conduct.” Thus, a violent student protest will come with consequences—but only after the accused have an opportunity to confront the evidence against them and mount a serious defense. The due process protections required by the Campus Free Speech Act set a standard for protecting the expressive rights of everyone in the university community.

Consider the alternative: If university officials refuse to protect students, then local, state, or federal law enforcement may have no choice but to make their presence felt on campus on a regular basis when a school invites controversial speakers or allows protest marches. The college campus should be a place for the free exchange of ideas, not a police state.

Yet the latter is inevitable if university administrators do not restore free expression as a core value of their community. The Campus Free Speech Act protects everyone who comes to campus to share ideas and provides a way for university officials to take responsible action when those ideas are silenced.

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