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    August 2017

    Responding When Violent Protest Comes to Campus

    In this increasingly polarized era, colleges face serious risks from speakers or extremist groups coming to campus to create conflict, intimidate, or even incite violence.

    We’ve written previously about what to do when campus protests go too far, but higher education leaders must be prepared when outside visitors create a threat. Following recent events at the University of Virginia and elsewhere, institutions must recalibrate their thinking and planning for visits by these groups. 


    Put Safety First

    Campus protests are an important part of civil discourse and serve a valuable educational function, but it’s critical to put the safety of your campus community first. It’s essential to have plans to prevent outside protests from turning violent, and for responding if they do:

    • Review and update your crisis response plan. Your crisis management team should do this on a regular basis; take the opportunity to do so now in light of the current environment. Consider whether your plan anticipates peaceable protests becoming violent. Incorporate lessons learned from incidents being reported on other campuses. Be sure your plan clearly defines when a protest becomes a safety threat, and how your institution will protect your campus community, up to and including sheltering in place or evacuating parts of your campus.
    • Conduct drills and tabletops. Hold practice drills and tabletop exercises to probe for weaknesses in your revised plan. Ensure that key actions are included such as communicating with students and parents about planned protests, methods for keeping a protest peaceful, responding when violence erupts, and sharing information following a protest.
    • Talk with your campus community. Take the time to discuss protests and free speech issues before protesters come to campus. Explain where your institution draws the line with respect to free speech and violence. Educate students, faculty, and staff about potential dangers of confronting protesters and counter-protestors so they can make informed safety decisions.
    • Update your crisis communications plan. Anticipate questions from students, parents, faculty, staff, and your local community, both in the run up to a controversial protest as well as in the event of violence. Designate a spokesperson, and draft and practice delivery of key messages and responses. Create a plan for monitoring and responding on social media.
    • Update your policies. Institutions have several disparate policies that are relevant to potentially violent protests, including, for example, policies covering on-campus events, the use of public spaces, campus safety, protests and civil disobedience, campus policing, and student codes of conduct. These policies often vary and can be inconsistent. A comprehensive review can identify policies that need updating or clarification.


    Legal and Campus Security Considerations

    Campus protests also often have legal implications that institutions should be aware of:

    • Know the laws regarding use of your public spaces. Legal considerations will be different depending on whether you are a public or private institution, applicable state or local laws, and what type of policies your institution has adopted. Even if it’s not possible to exclude a group or speaker, it should be possible to restrict the location, time, and nature of a protest. Work with legal counsel to understand what limits you can impose.
    • Train campus security forces. Whether you have a sworn police department or private security force, institutions should take steps to ensure that campus security is properly 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 the risks of the use of force by campus security and the potential benefits of de-escalation training, see our 2017 claims study on Excessive Force by Campus Security.)
    • Campuses with guns. Institutions that allow visitors to carry guns should consult with legal counsel to understand whether it is possible to impose any weapons restrictions at a potentially violent protest. Make sure your 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 ask for help. If you don't have a memorandum of understanding in place with your local police, now is a good time to create one. Be prepared to contact your state government if you believe you may require assistance from the National Guard. 


    Gather Intelligence

    Beyond general safety planning, there are steps institutions can take to anticipate what will happen when controversial speakers or extremist groups come to campus:

    • Recognize that your institution could be a target for extremists. Colleges and universities are increasingly becoming targets for extremist groups hoping to attract media attention, so it’s important to be vigilant.
    • Learn about the proposed speaker or protesters, particularly in terms of their past behavior. In addition to searching through news reports and social media, organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center may provide relevant information. Additionally, reaching out to peer institutions that have hosted the speaker or group could help you understand what to expect.
    • Monitor and alert senior leadership to extremist activities. Understand how your institution approves requests for campus visits and protests, and what the response will be if an extremist group wants to come to your campus. Ensure staff are empowered to report these requests, as well as unplanned visits, to senior campus leadership, who can properly prepare. Recognize also that controversial speakers invited to campus by student groups may attract outsiders with the potential for violence.
    • Request specific details prior to the visit. Once you have notice of a controversial speaker or planned protest, request details regarding how many people they expect to bring to campus, where they plan to assemble, the nature of their activities, and how long they intend to stay. Recognize also that the group may not know or may misrepresent these details, so seek updated information from the group and other available sources as the event gets closer. 


    During a Protest

    Once a protest begins, institutions should be vigilant for potentially intimidating or violent activities.

    Monitor the crowds of protesters and counter-protesters, watching for intimidating or threatening activities on either side. Public institutions should remember that the First Amendment does not 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.

    By taking the time to prepare for potentially violent protests on your campus, you can ensure the safety of your community while allowing peaceful demonstrations and supporting civil discourse at your institution.


    By Alex Miller, associate vice president of research and program development

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