- Your college must allow your group to meet and hold events on the same basis as it does other groups.
- You have a constitutional right to hold protests and demonstrations at your public university. But your college can regulate the time, place and manner of the protest so that it doesn’t interfere with college activities, health or safety.
- Most private university according to its rules.
- Your college cannot stop you from inviting a speaker on the basis that some find the speaker’s views “controversial.”
- Your public college cannot charge you security fees because it believes your speaker is “controversial.”
You should not be discriminated against by your university because your message supports Palestinian freedom. If your public university isn’t enforcing a rule for other clubs, they can’t enforce it against you and private should be challenged for discriminatory enforcement. The First Amendment and free speech principles require that rules be viewpoint neutral. This means that public colleges cannot apply the rules differently, or otherwise treat you differently because they don't like your message.
Unfortunately we still see this a lot: student groups supporting Palestinian rights are punished for distributing mock eviction flyers in dorms when other groups flyer in dorms all the time; SJPs are told they can’t have a dabka event in the same area where other cultural dances or performances are allowed; or their club banners are taken down because some students and alumni disagree with the message. These kinds of actions, if taken by administrators at a public university, violate the First Amendment and possibly discrimination laws. If done by administrators at a private university, they violate free speech principles (and possibly state laws). If this happens to you or your student group, document it and call Palestine Legal.
However, the government (which includes public universities) may place reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of your speech activities to minimize disruption. Time, place, and manner regulations for your school can usually be found in the student handbook, or other policies posted on-line. If time, place, manner regulations prevent you from getting your message to your intended audience or if they are applied differently to you than to others, they may be unconstitutional.
If you’re planning civil disobedience – like having a “sit in” mic-check or lying down in the street to get your message across -- be aware of the practical consequences of your actions before you begin.
- Be aware of criminal statutes (state and local ordinances) as well university rules.
- Know your rights in dealing with the police.
- If you are a non-citizen, an arrest could affect your immigration status and even result in your deportation.
- Many employers may ask about arrests when you apply for jobs. However, some states (like California) prohibit employers from asking about arrests that don’t lead to convictions.
- Be prepared: Call Palestine Legal or the National Lawyers Guild to arrange for legal support.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can public universities restrict protests?
You should be allowed to protest in outdoor plazas and other spaces open to the public on your public college or university campus. However, your public university can place reasonable “time, place or manner” restrictions on your protest so that it doesn’t unduly interfere with classes or block walkways or entrances to buildings. But these restrictions must apply equally to all groups, regardless of their political viewpoint. Your campus can’t place additional restrictions on your group because it supports Palestinian rights.
Mock Checkpoints on Campus
A mock checkpoint – where students engage in street theater portraying Palestinians attempting to cross a military checkpoint – on a public university campus is protected First Amendment activity. However, the university can restrict where you hold it (for example, so it doesn’t block passageways or entrances/exits), when you hold it, and how you hold it (for example, no realistic toy guns) – as long as these restrictions apply to all groups regardless of viewpoint. Handing out flyers educating students on Israeli checkpoints is also protected First Amendment activity. If you’re thinking about holding a mock checkpoint action or if you have problems with your mock checkpoint events, contact us for tips and best practices.
Can colleges restrict counter-protesters?
A public university can enforce reasonable regulations on how students protest, as long as they are not overly restrictive and applied evenly to all groups. This means that your college can require counter protestors to keep a certain distance from another group’s event in the interest of public safety, and balancing both groups’ speech rights. But it must be a reasonable distance that still allows the counter-protestors to express their message. For example, your college may not require counter-protestors to demonstrate in a different place entirely, or may not make a rule saying “no signs.”
If you have a question about whether your college’s enforcement of counter-protest rules violates your rights, contact us.
Disrupting Speech and Criminal Prosecutions
In February 2010, several students at the University of California Irvine protested a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. The students stood up at separate times and read short statements of several seconds in duration, then voluntarily left the room escorted by security. After the fourth interruption, Oren left the stage for several minutes, returned, and continued with his speech.
The state prosecutor charged the students – dubbed the Irvine 11 – with violating a California law that makes it a misdemeanor to disrupt a public meeting such that it “substantially impairs” the meeting’s function. Though we believe the misdemeanor convictions the students received violated their First Amendment rights, the California Court of Appeals ruled otherwise. This means that if you are in California, or another state with similar statutes, like New York or Michigan, you could be criminally prosecuted for disrupting another’s speech.
Contact us if you are considering this type of action so we can analyze the laws in your state. Even if your state does not have a statute on disrupting a public meeting, keep in mind that you could still be charged for “disorderly conduct,” depending on your state. That said, while many student groups supporting Palestinian rights have faced university disciplinary proceedings for such disruptions, criminal prosecutions like the Irvine 11 are exceptional.
Can my college restrict my group to a “free speech zone?”
It depends. Your public college can restrict your tabling event, protest or mock apartheid wall to a certain space—or keep you from a space that’s otherwise open—but only based on reasonable “time, place, and manner” regulations. This means that restrictions must be reasonably related to legitimate goals (such as reducing an identifiable security risk) and your college must not prevent substantially more expression than is necessary to achieve those goals. The restrictions must also allow you to have a reasonable opportunity to effectively communicate your message to your intended audience. This means, for example, the free speech zone cannot be too small or isolated. Finally, the restrictions must not be motivated by your message. Some free speech zones have been challenged in court and ruled unconstitutional. If your college’s policy is limiting your ability to protest and organize, contact Palestine Legal for advice. If your private college is restricting your speech unreasonably or in a discriminatory way, you may be able to challenge this as well.
Can my college refuse to recognize our Students for Justice in Palestine club because they claim SJP is “controversial?”
No. The Supreme Court has held that a public university’s refusal to recognize a student group based on an assumed relationship with a national group whose politics it disagreed with interfered with students’ fundamental right to free association. What this means is that a pubic college can’t stop the formation of your SJP based on an opinion it may have about other SJP chapters. To do so is guilt by association and an impermissible denial of First Amendment rights. Even though this ruling applies to public universities, if you are at a private college, you can still challenge your administration’s perceptions by explaining to your administration what your group is about, and argue that free speech principles that your college aspires to require that your student group be recognized as SJP. (Students trying to form an SJP at one private college did this and won.) Contact us if you have a question about this.
Can my college charge my club security costs because they say, for example, our speaker is “controversial?”
No. Public university policies that charge fees on the basis of anticipated audience reaction violate the constitution. Imposing security fees on expressive activity is a restriction of First Amendment rights. Even at private schools, assessing security fees based on the potential hostile reaction of protestors threatens free speech principles because it imposes a cost on expressive conduct. Contacts us if your student group has been charged a security fee and you would like to challenge it.
Can my college impose the presence of security officers at our events over our objections?
Maybe – call us. Because colleges may be liable for injuries on campus, if your college judges that there is a security risk at your event, it may be legally justified in having security officers present. But officials must use objective criteria to determine that there is a traffic flow problem or security risk, and cannot merely require security because the content of your event seems “controversial.” Keep in mind that even if having security officers present appears legally sound, it can still be problematic, and an attorney may be able to help you challenge this. See our section on Differential Treatment.
What can I do if campus police is always hovering over our events and making students feel uncomfortable approaching our mock apartheid wall or table?
Document this by taking pictures, noting the times, dates, number of officers and how close they are standing. Set up a meeting with your college administration and explain how the presence of police is deterring students from approaching your wall or table. If your administration refuses to listen, call us.
Can my school prevent our club from inviting Ali Abunimah, Remi Kenazi or other people supportive of Palestinian rights to speak at my college because they say he or she is “controversial?”
No. The Supreme Court has been very clear that an important function of free speech is to provoke and invite dispute. This means that the First Amendment and free speech principles protect the right even to controversial speech and speakers who take positions that may arouse strong feelings, passions, and even hostility.
Can my school force me to present “the other side” if I invite Omar Barghouti, Judith Butler, or another speaker to talk about BDS?
No. Your college cannot force you to “dialogue,” present “the other side” or engage in other normalization attempts. Just like LGBTQ groups don’t have to present the “other side” to marriage equality, and environmental groups don’t have to present the “other side” to climate change, and Hillel does not have invite pro-BDS speakers, it is your right to decline to invite any speaker whose views you do not care to present.
Can my college withhold funding for an SJP event because they say the speaker is controversial?
No. The Supreme Court has been very clear that an important function of free speech is to provoke and invite dispute. This means that at a public college, both the administration and the student government cannot discriminate in funding based on the content of an event.
What can I do if my college is making it difficult to hold events (like by taking too much time to approve events, constantly losing room reservations or giving other excuses)?
The First Amendment and free speech principles prohibit colleges from suppressing speech on the basis of viewpoint. This includes both outright censorship, as well as more indirect methods that make it difficult for SJPs and other clubs supporting Palestinian rights to hold events. If your college is engaging in this kind of behavior, document it. Make a note of how long it took to get approval for each event. Talk to other groups and document how long it took for them to get approval. If these problems are only happening to your group, it is a sign of discriminatory treatment, possibly because of the viewpoint your group promotes. See our tips below on how to document university oppression of your SJP. And definitely contact us so we can help you assert your rights!
 Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169 (1972) (State College’s refusal to recognize local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] because college president concluded the National SDS had a philosophy of disruption and violence, violated students’ associational rights under the First Amendment.).
 Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123, 134 (1992).
 Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 US 1, 4 (1949).
 See, e.g., Snyder v. Phelps, 131 S.Ct. 1207, 1217 (2011) (protesting at a fallen soldier’s funeral with signs that read "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11" and "God Hates Fags" protected by First Amendment); Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 ,365-66 (2003) (cross burning); Texas v. Johnson, 491 US 397, 414 (1989) (flag desecration protected by First Amendment ); Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 24-25 (1971) (“fuck the draft” protected by First Amendment); University of Utah Students Against Apartheid v. Peterson, 649 F. Supp 1200, 1203-1207 (D. Utah 1986) (construction and maintenance of shanties on university campus to protest apartheid in South Africa protected by First Amendment).
 Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 US 1, 4 (1949); See, e.g., Snyder v. Phelps, 131 S.Ct. 1207, 1217 (2011), protesting at a fallen soldier’s funeral with signs that read "God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11" and "God Hates Fags"); Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 ,365-66 (2003) (cross burning); Texas v. Johnson, 491 US 397, 414 (1989) (flag desecration); Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 24-25 (1971) (“fuck the draft”); University of Utah Students Against Apartheid v. Peterson, 649 F. Supp. 1200, 1203-1207 (D. Utah 1986) (construction and maintenance of shanties on university campus to protest apartheid in South Africa).
Disclaimer: Do not rely on these materials without first seeking the advice of an attorney about your particular situation and facts. Only a licensed attorney, reviewing your individual facts, may render legal advice. This information is provided as a public resource for information purposes only. Nothing in this resource should be taken to create an attorney-client relationship between you and Palestine Legal.