5 steps to take now to prepare for student protests

As college students return to campus, it's likely that protests will too, Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman write for the Wall Street Journal

Chemerinsky is dean of the University of California, Berkeley's School of Law and Gillman is chancellor of the University of California, Irvine. They're also co-authors of Free Speech on Campus.

If you thought students were done protesting, think again, they write. But campus leaders needn't be wary. According to Chemerinsky and Gillman, these five guidelines will allow you to not only help students express themselves, but keep them and the rest of the campus community safe.

1: Make freedom of speech a clear priority

According to Chemerinsky and Gillman, the reason why many students respond adversely to controversial viewpoints from peers or campus visitors is because they don't fully grasp the notion of free speech. Campus leaders need to help guide them through the difference between the free exchange of ideas—including ones they perceive as incorrect—and harassment, they suggest.

Starting with freshman orientation, they recommend helping students understand why freedom of expression is such an essential policy at colleges and universities. While it may be uncomfortable for them at first, students will begin to appreciate the value of expressing all viewpoints, including their own, they write.

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2: Make an action plan for controversial speakers

Students might feel as though expressing disagreement with a campus speaker is looked down upon by campus officials or may not want the speaker to visit at all. Chemerinsky and Gillman suggest proactively letting students know that speakers will not be declined simply because of differing viewpoints, while encouraging them to express their disagreements in effective ways—including through a counter-events, social media, or other methods that don't disrupt the speaker.

As a result, students will feel comforted knowing that they have ways to object that will be supported by the university.

3: Ensure equal and fair campus access

If students start feeling as though campus leaders are only selecting campus speakers who represent one side or another, they may feel alienated. Instead, you should make clear guidelines beforehand about how the decision to invite a speaker is made and what criteria are used in the decision, Chemerinsky and Gillman write. Afterward, those guidelines should be enforced across the board.

This way, students will not feel that one group or view is getting more campus access than another, because they'll know how a permit, for example, is issued.

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4: Implement security measures

If there is a controversial speaker, students on both the opposing and supporting sides may not feel safe. That's why campus leaders need to ensure steps are taken to ensure everyone's safety, Chemerinsky and Gillman write.

For example, they suggest making it harder for protesters to block access to the speaker's venue or require university IDs or tickets. Make sure speakers know that, while they can't be protected from opposing protests, they can be protected from violence or threats of violence, Chemerinsky and Gillman write. Having these measures and understandings in place far before a campus speaker visits will help students feel safer.

5: Enforce disciplinary protocols as needed

Violence can ensue when students feel that a controversial campus speech is a free-for-all. Campus leaders have to ensure that the student code of conduct includes terms relevant to speeches and demonstrations, Chemerinsky and Gillman suggest. This includes distinguishing between minor interruptions and heckling that renders the speaker silent.

They suggest helping students understand that everyone deserves the chance to use the rights afforded to them by the First Amendment. Such careful messaging can make an enormous difference, they write (Chemerinsky/Gillman, Wall Street Journal, 9/4). 

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