IN RESPONSE to the anti-war protests at colleges across the country, and the disturbing arrests that have followed, the American Civil Liberties Union has sent a letter to leaders at both public and private universities.

The letter states: “As you fashion responses to the activism of your students (and faculty and staff), it is essential that you not sacrifice principles of academic freedom and free speech that are core to the educational mission of your respected institution.”

Authored by ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero and National Legal Director David Cole, the letter offers university leaders five basic guardrails to ensure freedom of speech and academic freedom are protected on campus:

  • They must not single out particular viewpoints for censorship, discipline, or disproportionate punishment.
  • They must protect students from targeted discriminatory harassment and violence, but may not penalise people for taking sides on the war in Gaza, even if expressed in deeply offensive terms.
  • They can announce and enforce reasonable content-neutral time, place, or manner policies on protesting activity, but they must leave ample room for students to express themselves. These rules must be applied consistently and without regard to viewpoint.
  • They must recognise that armed police on campus can endanger students and are a measure of last resort.
  • They must resist the pressures placed on them by politicians seeking to exploit campus tensions.

The letter also informs university leaders of relevant Supreme Court precedent: “The Supreme Court has forcefully rejected the premise that, ‘because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large.’”

The letter strongly advises university leaders to be “cognisant of the history of law enforcement using inappropriate and excessive force in responding to protests, particularly against communities of colour”, and that – as events of the past week have made abundantly clear – arresting peaceful protestors is likely to escalate, not calm, tensions on campus.

The letter also reiterates that violence is never an acceptable protest tactic and that “physically intimidating students by blocking their movements or pursuing them aggressively is unprotected conduct, not protected speech.”

* Read the open letter here.

* Source: The American Civil Liberties Union