American college students are known for their commitment to political, social, and cultural issues. Their activism on campus takes many forms: protests, demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, letter-writing campaigns, social media campaigns, and the like. When you came to college, maybe you, too, became an activist. But what if your activism has landed you in the dean's office (or worse) on the grounds that you took it too far and violated school policy. What now?
First, what does it mean that you have gone “too far?” Don't students—undergraduate and graduate—have constitutional rights of free speech, religion, and free assembly? Yes, they do, and on almost every campus, you are entitled to be a voice for righting wrongs. Not all forms of protest are constitutionally protected, however, and colleges and universities have their own policies and codes of conduct. For them, “extreme activism” has to do with the method of a student's protest, not the student's objective.
Students once pushed UCLA to create a Chicano/a studies department by going on a 14-day hunger strike. While the method was aggressive and attention-getting, the students' actions did not violate any campus policies and were not considered extreme.
Students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, once blocked a highway to protest the university's tuition hike. There is nothing wrong with protesting a tuition hike, but blocking a public highway to garner support was going too far. The university suspended the students for more than a year.
Considerations in Student Activism
Even student conduct codes do not always tell you if your proposed activity is extreme or non-extreme. For example, the UCLA Student Conduct Code does not address activism directly; rather, it names various kinds of prohibited methods of activism (such as, “obstruction or disruption of teaching . . . or other University activities,” or “engaging in disorderly or lewd conduct,” or “participation in a disturbance of the peace or unlawful assembly”). This is broad language that does not necessarily tell one, in advance, what might or might not be permitted.
The Rutgers University Code of Student Conduct prohibits activity that 1) violates “local, state, or federal law; 2) presents a danger or threat to the health or safety of . . . others; 3) significantly breaches the peace and/or causes social disorder; or 4) Is detrimental to the educational interests of the University.” These provisions are more specific than UCLA's, but they are still somewhat vague.
As an activist, you should know and understand your school's code of conduct. If the code is vague, and you find yourself facing disciplinary measures for an action carried out by your advocacy group, you might need to find an advocate of your own.
Attorney-advisor Joseph D. Lento understands the complexities of school disciplinary proceedings, and recognizes the importance of due process for all students. If you're in trouble with your school for what it's calling extreme activism, call him today at (888) 535-3686 or contact his office online.