Are College Protest Encampments Legal?

Inspired by Columbia University, students across the country have set up encampments to protest the Israel-Hamas war.
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Published on May 2, 2024
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  • Anti-war and divestment encampments have sprung up on college campuses across the U.S.
  • In some instances, as was the case at Columbia University, officials called the police to break up encampments.
  • These actions have left many wondering whether these protests are legal.
  • University responses may have lasting impacts on freedom of speech issues going forward.

The university-student relationship is being put to the test as thousands of students stage encampments to protest the ongoing Israel-Hamas war and their respective institutions' investments in companies that support Israel.

While the encampment and protests that began April 17 at Columbia University have garnered the most attention and headlines, the first encampment appears to have been established at Tennessee's Vanderbilt University on March 26.

Since then, encampments have appeared at colleges across the country, from the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Columbia in New York City.

The protests have been met with mixed responses from university leaders.

The University of Texas at Austin authorized state troopers twice in one week to arrest protesters and dismantle encampments. At Columbia, dozens of pro-Palestinian demonstrators were arrested after the university authorized the New York City Police Department to enter the campus and clear an encampment and a building occupied by protesters.

At Brown University in Rhode Island, demonstrators dismantled their encampment after university leaders agreed to discuss divesting funds from companies connected to the Israeli military.

Meanwhile, Wesleyan University in Connecticut has allowed the protesters' encampment, as long as it continues to remain nonviolent and does not disrupt normal campus operations.

With responses to encampments varying from institution to institution and state to state, here's what college students need to know about encampments as a form of protest.

Are College Protest Encampments Legal?

The short answer is, "no," but there's more to the story than that.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a free speech advocacy group, recently shared that both private and public institutions have the right to regulate large gatherings and overnight camping.

That's because even universities beholden to First Amendment standards of freedom of expression can institute "reasonable" time, place, and manner (TPM) restrictions on student speech in public areas of campus.

Essentially, college campuses have some say in how and when students can protest.

Camping overnight on shared university campus spaces almost assuredly violates most schools' TPM restrictions. That means encampments are not protected speech, Zach Greenberg, a senior programs officer at FIRE, told BestColleges.

"These encampments are generally not free speech: They are civil disobedience," he said.

"If you're going to violate the policies, you're going to have to be ready to face the consequences."

TPM restrictions may also apply to where a protest occurs on a campus.

For example, open spaces like parks are likely allowed to be protest spaces. However, colleges and universities have significantly more authority to regulate indoor protests.

Greenberg recommends that students check their student handbooks to learn about their school's TPM restrictions before protesting.

Legal Protections Differ Depending on Institution Type

Students' free speech rights may differ slightly depending on whether they attend a private or public institution.

Public institutions must extend all free speech protections to students. These colleges and universities are government-run, so they must enforce all First Amendment protections.

Still, the following forms of speech are not allowed in any situation, according to FIRE:

  • True threats and intimidation
  • Incitement
  • Discriminatory harassment
  • Substantially disrupting events or deplatforming speakers

Private institutions have some leeway in how they regulate speech. However, FIRE notes that most private colleges and universities promise that they will uphold all free speech rights. If that's the case, students at those institutions should enjoy all the same protections as their counterparts at public institutions.

Following Precedent

How universities respond to recent encampments sets important free speech precedents for future protests.

Colleges and universities must apply their TPM restrictions equally and cannot discriminate based on the views espoused in any given protest. That means if a pro-Israel group was allowed to carry out an encampment protest, then a pro-Palestine group must also be able to do so, and vice versa.

"To be constitutional, those rules must apply to everyone, no matter their viewpoint and even when they're not trying to convey a message at all," FIRE wrote.

Greenberg said these factors mean that how universities respond to encampments now may impact future students' freedom of speech rights.

Wesleyan University President Michael Roth said an encampment at the private university will be allowed to continue, as long as protests remain peaceful.

"The protest has been nonviolent and has not disrupted normal campus operations. As long as it continues in this way, the university will not attempt to clear the encampment," Roth wrote. "We will continue to monitor the situation to keep everyone safe and will send updates as necessary."

This would mean that the university would need to allow other, nonviolent encampment protests in the future, Greenberg said.

The same logic works in the inverse.

For example, police officers have broken up many encampments in early 2024. Those universities will be expected to call law enforcement for any encampments for non-Palestine-related protests, or else the 2024 arrests could be deemed discriminatory.

Potential Penalties, Punishment for Protests

Students who violate school TPM protest restrictions, like those who participate in encampments, can be reprimanded.

The actual punishments, Greenberg said, can vary by institution. They may also depend on the severity of the rule-breaking.

"Punishments can range from a slap on the wrist to expulsion," he said.

Universities frequently push law enforcement to charge students with trespassing if they are arrested at an encampment. With serious offenses, Greenberg said, universities may levy suspensions or expulsions on top of students' legal ramifications.

At the University of Florida, eight of the nine protesters arrested in late April were released without bail, according to the local student newspaper. The one protester who did have to pay bail ($5,000) was forced to do so because they allegedly spit on a police officer while arrests were being made.

Outcomes may be more severe for international students.

Greenberg said many student visa agreements have clauses in the contract that require the student to remain in good standing with the college or university for their student visa to remain. Being arrested or found to have violated the school handbook could cause an international student to lose their visa status or may prevent them from renewing their visa for the next academic year.